Book Review – The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr

I feel like I don’t read as much non-fiction as I should, especially having a degree in both History and English. Unfortunately, most novels hold my attention better than most non-fiction (not all novels though; there have definitely been novels that have disappointed me in that respect). With that said, I was skeptical about The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr. Having finished it, I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be reading more non-fiction in the future.

Jonathan Harr, the author of A Civil Action, tackles the world of art history in The Lost Painting as scholars search for a Caravaggio painting that disappeared from the records. Harr focuses mostly on two graduate students from Rome who turned to archives to trace The Taking of Christ’s trail and the Italian art restorer working in Ireland’s National Gallery who never doubted the true artist behind a work he was restoring. There is some background information on each of the key players but enough is left out to feel like their privacy wasn’t sacrificed for the sake of length. It’s about the painting, not the people. There isn’t even much of a biography of Caravaggio included, only a handful of pages scattered here and there.

If I hadn’t known going into the book that it was non-fiction, I would have thought it was a novel. There are only a few instances where the narrative reads like its origins were in interviews, articles, and books. The ending did have a hint of “where are they now” to it, but didn’t go into too many personal details or get bogged down in the media aftermath that the find generated. Harr wanted to focus on the work that went into tracking and tracing the painting’s history and the challenge of restoring and authenticating it.

The book reads like an exciting treasure hunt (but one where the toughest work has already been done for the reader with limited expertise). Amid the adventurous feel, Harr accurately depicts the frustrating and time consuming process of historical research. Any historian, not just art historians, will relate to the graduate students trips to various archives and the days of finding nothing before unearthing a single shred of useful information. I don’t know quite how he managed, but Harr made each trip to dusty shelves and fading print seem new and fresh instead of boring.

What intrigued me most were the technical details of the restoration and preservation processes. The harsh but true representation of competitive academia gave the book its key source of drama (and after witnessing a small piece of that world for four years, it really is as emotionally charged as Harr’s depiction).

I wish that I had been assigned a book like this during my art history class. It was far more engaging than any textbook and shows what someone with an art history degree can do (at least, in Italy). Part of me wishes that there could have been photos included as part of the book’s lay out. There’s only one full color image of the painting the book centers on and it is on the back cover.

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