Once again, it's that time of year when merry gentlemen and ladies go looking for books to give to friends and family. Real books. Beautiful books. Books you put on display, not away. Among the best this year is a comprehensive look at American still-life painting. Another reveals how Dutch painting in its heyday helped distinguish high from low in Dutch society. There's a book about the most-photographed 19th-century American and another about a well-traveled sphinx. There are books on the beauty of dragonflies, flowers, and even New Jersey, and much more. Prices given are list, but discounts are common.
Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer by Ronni Baer and others (MFA Publications, $65). Recent estimates suggest more than five million works were painted in the northern Netherlands in the 17th century. It wasn't just the upper crust that were depicted. In fact, portraits of the nobility tend to be of poorer quality, because aristocrats just wanted documentation of their pedigree. Others wanted a record of achievement. The paintings here demand a close look: The details gain you entrance to a world long past that turns out to be very much like the one we are living in.
The Art of American Still Life: Audubon to Warhol by Mark D. Mitchell (Philadelphia Museum of Art, $65). Decades before Andy Warhol made his group portrait of Brillo boxes, Stuart Davis had done a still life that included a pack of Lucky Strikes along with some Zig Zag rolling papers. This catalog, of the show running through Jan. 10 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a must-have for anyone aware of how still life enriches our lives by demonstrating the beauty of objects we often take for granted.
The Wrath of the Gods by Christopher Atkins (Philadelphia Museum of Art, $35). Come upon Rubens' Prometheus Bound at the Philadelphia Museum when you're a child and you'll get a fearful memory to last a lifetime. The Titan stole fire from heaven and gave it to humankind - and Zeus punished him by chaining him to a rock, where he was visited daily by an eagle that devoured his liver, which grew back overnight. He is often associated with Christ, and Rubens' figure is modeled on Michelangelo's portrayal of the risen Christ in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo did his own version of Prometheus, as did Titian. Works by all three and more are featured in a volume filled with images that make scary movies look tame.
The Sphinx That Traveled to Philadelphia by Josef Wegner and Jennifer Houser Wegner (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, $29.95). In 1913, a German steamer docked at Christian Street along the Delaware, and an unusual passenger disembarked: the Sphinx. Oh, not the one that still watches over the pyramids at Giza. This was a portrayal of Pharaoh Ramses II. Still, at 12 tons, it was and remains the largest Egyptian sphinx in the Western Hemisphere, and a star attraction at the Penn Museum. The story of how it was discovered, how it got here, and the intrepid Philadelphians behind the whole enterprise is told in words and many pictures in this utterly fascinating volume.
Picturing Frederick Douglass by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier (Liveright, $49.95). Most people might guess that Abraham Lincoln was the 19th century's most-photographed American. Most people would be wrong. The right answer is Frederick Douglass, former slave and eloquent abolitionist. That's only fair, as Douglass had a lifelong love for what he called the "democratic art." It also helped that he was, from first to last, a good-looking dude. The pictures here convey a real sense of his presence, which must have been impressive. His "Lecture on Pictures," included here, gives you a savory sample of his famous eloquence.
The Philadelphia Country House by Mark E. Reinberger (Johns Hopkins, $69.95). Some of them stick in the minds of locals as place names, street names, or both - Belmont, Lansdowne, Stenton, Mount Pleasant. But they started as country houses, well-to-do Philadelphians' answer to English manor houses. You can read all about them and get a good look at them - inside and out - in this very handsome and informative book.
Dogs As I See Them by Lucy Dawson (Harper Design, $17.14). Anyone who strolls about town or sits in a park from time to time knows the world has gone to the dogs. This facsimile edition of British illustrator Dawson's 1936 classic collection of dog portraits demonstrates why this may well be a good thing. Nothing generic here. These are canines with personalities on display, as anyone who has ever bonded with a pooch will immediately discern. A wondrous match of artist and subject.
The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age by Al Hirschfeld (Knopf, $40). You need only turn to page 124 to know why you should have this book. The classic 1951 cartoon "Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding" depicts not one, not two, but four Fred Astaires dancing with one another. What better proof that Hirschfeld was the caricaturist-as-artist par excellence, every bit the equal - sometimes the superior - of Daumier and Hogarth? A delight from first page to last.
Veranda: The Romance of Flowers by Clinton Smith (Hearst Books, $60). Thanks to Veranda, the interior design magazine, you won't need to get anyone flowers for their birthdays. You can give this book instead. That way, they'll have a bouquet a day to marvel over, along with stunning landscape shots to boot. There is page after page here of utter beauty. But there are also lovely interiors made even lovelier by the plants that grace them.
Ireland: A Luminous Beauty by Peter Harbison and Leslie Conron Carola (Thomas Dunne Books, $35). Talk about loading the dice! Take some top-notch photographers and set them loose snapping shots of the Emerald Isle. What you get is what you'd expect and a lot more. Oh, there's plenty of the vaunted greenery. But the shots of river rapids, boulders by the sea, and waves crashing upon the coast of Waterford display Ireland and its island light in all their resplendent glory.
Photosonata by Martin J. Desht (Fine Grain Books, $50). Anyone who has spent formative years in the shadow of factories and warehouses develops an eye for the shadowy, melancholy beauty of the industrial landscape. Desht, an artist from Easton, Pa., offers photos of towns and cities in Pennsylvania that are spare and evocative. Two sections are devoted to the gritty Philadelphia tourists seldom visit. And Desht's poems are perfect complements to the images he has so discerningly captured.
Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia by Dennis Carr (MFA Publications, $50). Columbus may have fallen a few thousand miles short in trying to reach the East Indies, but by the late 16th century, the annual voyage of Spanish commercial fleets from Asia to the Americas had begun. Pretty soon, folding screens modeled on Chinese and Japanese screens were being made in Mexico, textiles were starting to imitate the silks and cottons of China and India, and furniture in colonial Boston was trying to match Asian lacquer finishes. This book provides a comprehensive look at the intriguing results of this cultural cross-pollination.
The Raritan River by Judy Auerbach Shaw (Rutgers, $36). If you think of New Jersey as a bunch of housing developments, strip malls, and highways on the way to somewhere else, you need to see this book and be reminded of how much sheer beauty still flourishes in the Garden State. The Raritan, at 90 miles, is the longest river completely within the state. But it boasts an astounding 2,000 miles of tributary streams and brooks. The wildlife photos included here are gorgeous (check out the box turtle portrait on page 90), and the paintings all do the river justice. This really is a volume you'll want to keep on your coffee table.
Crafted: Objects in Flux by Emily Zilber (MFA Publications, $45). The idea here is "the use of twenty-first century materials, technologies, and modes of display to expand notions of what a crafted object . . . can be." So the handmade carpets, elaborate woodwork, and exquisite vessels seem to be made for display, not use. As it happens, they hold up quite well independently, and prove to be well worth looking at again and again.
Dragonflies by Pieter van Dokkum (Yale, $37.50). So what if they're just bugs? They're also beautiful. And they prey on mosquitoes and other bugs. (They grab their victims in the air and are estimated to catch them 95 percent of the time.) Van Dokkum's amazing photos provide glimpses into dragonfly activity rarely seen, let alone recorded.
At Dusk: Boston Common at Twilight by Erica Hirshler (MFA Publications, $9.95). OK, it's not a coffee-table book. So call it an end-table book. Also, its focus is just one painting, the title work by Frederick Childe Hassam. But it's exquisite, a reminder that great art lets us see the world better: "When a reddish sun sets early on a December afternoon, Hassam's image remains in the mind's eye."