Like most businesses, publishing is always on the hunt for the Next Big Thing, not only in what goes between the covers, but what’s on the front as well. As Wench Pat noted in her last blog, Cover Art follows fashion like everything else. As soon as one book with an interesting cover becomes a bestseller, every other art director in New York rushes to join the parade. In other words, Good Art is the Art that Sells.
Now what’s new is old. Old Masters, Fine Art, or just plain Paintings (it’s all in the capitalization, I guess) are gracing popular fiction. This kind of art has long been used on bookcovers, but usually on so-called classic fiction. Old art equaled old writing,
apparently, though in many readers’ minds, the sight of any “old” painting on a bookcover immediately brings to mind book reports and reading lists. I really wonder at some of these choices, too. What exactly does the worldly French Comtesse d’Haussonville (painted by Ingres in 1845) have to do with Jane Austen’s heroine Emma of a generation earlier?
The art on covers now is often cropped in more interesting ways (though don’t get me started on the head-less-ness; I’ll save that for another blog), and balanced with elaborate type and other design elements to make it seem more "fresh." Period art helps give a book historical credibility if the characters are based on real people. When I wrote about Sarah Churchill in Duchess, it made sense for my publisher to put her portrait on the cover. Though as I discovered when my publisher was choosing which portrait of Lady Castlemaine to put on the cover of Royal Harlot, it helps if your heroine’s face can pass current standards of attractiveness (For more about this, see my earlier blogs, Beauty & the Barbara, and Cover Girl.)
Lately paintings are turning up on mass market fiction, too. It’s an interesting trend, one that many of the WordWenches readers seem to be embracing. However, for the sake of fair reporting, I have to note that fine art covers on historical romances are, in several cases, proving more confusing than enticing. Readers aren’t “seeing” these covers as romances, and seem to feel a traditional clinch (however overdone) announces a romance much better than a 19th century portrait — or so the marketing folk are whispering with trepidation. Who knows for certain?
Personally, I’m all for using art from the era of the story for any historically-based book, whether it’s a romance, a western, action/war, or a fictionalized biography. I love art history, and a painting I recognize
makes me much more likely to pick up a book. Museums and other private collections are paid for the usage of these pictures, too, and I appreciate how those fees help keep such institutions afloat. And, frankly, it’s a lot easier to have a historical romance taken seriously when it has a handsome period cover (like Pam Rosenthal’s The Slightest Provocation here) instead of another luridly sweaty bodybuilder torso.
Which leads me to my Question of the Day: With all the thousands of historical images available around the world and over time, why are publishers using the same paintings over and over?
Yes, I know, I’ve got the art-history-nerd-girl eye that spots these things at fifty
paces. But I can’t be the only one who’s noticed this, am I? Georgette Heyer’s books are (finally) being reissued in elegant formats worthy of her writing. But in my local big-box store, this new edition of The Infamous Army is on a table twenty feet from Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. Arggh!
That’s only the beginning. Surely with all the beautiful art produced during the Tudor era by artists like Hans Holbein, there must be scads of images to use. Yet both The
Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell and A Lady Raised High by Laurien Gardiner have the same painting on their covers Yes, it’s a picture of Henry VIII’s doomed second queen, but it wasn’t done in her lifetime, or even by an English artist. Instead it’s a highly romanticized version of Anne’s last days in the Tower of London, painted by Frenchman Edouard Cibot in 1835. Go figure.
Another French artist has had even greater success defining English ladies of the Regency era, at least if current cover-art is to be believed. Gerard’s portrait of (the French, not English) Juliette Recamier is luminously beautiful, and one of the most famous portraits of the early 19th century. Art directors all up and down Manhattan must agree, because Juliette’s turning up on covers lately with super-model frequency. Here she is, in various forms, gracing the books of Honorary Wench Candace Hern, Mary Balough, and Amanda Elyot.
But perhaps the trend is already fading. Philippa Gregory, the most successful of
current historical novelists, has never had a period-painting on a cover on her popular Tudor-set books. Instead her “look” has been over-painted photographs of costumed models, with lavish gold embossing and lush type. Yet the latest edition (the movie tie-in) of The Other Boleyn Girl looks more like one of the Gossip Girls series set in modern New York than the Tudors of sixteenth century England.
What do you think of fine art on book covers? Does it make you pick up a book, or pass on by? And how many other separated-at-birth covers have you seen in the stores?