Looking at a reproduction of a work of art can never be as satisfying as standing in front of the real thing, right? Two new books— (Prestel, $120) and ($65, Abrams)—prove that the answer to that question is most, but not all, of the time.
The authors of both volumes zero in on small vignettes within large canvases, allowing the reader to get closer to Northern Renaissance paintings—some legendary, some less well-known—than he or she could in a gallery (at least without bringing down the wrath of a security guard). Pieter Bruegel the Elder's busy, heavily peopled works lend themselves particularly well to this treatment, and in Bruegel in Detail, we have the chance to study the skaters circling far in the background of Hunters in the Snow, or take notice of easily overlooked details—such as a soldier tying a bell around a cat's neck in Netherlandish Proverbs. Bruegel is one of the 21 artists featured in Masterpieces in Detail, which magnifies 41 great paintings: the jewels in the Virgin's crown in van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, the microscopic oddities contained in Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, become larger than life.