If you've ever thought Art History was for dweebs, consider this spectacularly intelligent and sumptiously produced set comprising five seasons of episodes which originally aired on the BBC. If Sister Wendy provoked your deepest parochial fears and put you off color wheels semi-permanently, The Private Life of a Masterpiece may be just the antidote you're looking for: impressively smart, marvelously researched, and with a really vivid visual presentation, most importantly this series has no ostensibly sweet onscreen nun whom you might suspect of hiding a vicious ruler to rap your knuckles with lest you not adequately remember what a pre-Raphaelite was.
The seven discs of this nicely packaged set deal with a huge gamut of styles and time periods, including some of the usual suspects (Da Vinci, Michelangelo) and some perhaps lesser known purveyors of the painted image (Uccello, Francesca). The set is divided disc-wise by either time period or style, so that on one disc you might get the 17th century and its glories (Rembrandt, Vermeer and Velazquez) and on another the Impressionist movement and its heirs (Renoir, Van Gogh and pointillist Seurat). The series not only delves into the actual production of its focal piece, it gives a history of each artist and his time period as well as some cultural context for the painting at hand, and the artist's life in general.
There are the usual long, lingering shots of various paintings, but there are also exceptionally cogent discussions led by such scholars as Camille Paglia. In virtually every episode there are not only intellectually challenging discussions but also little-known facts presented. For example, in the stupendous episode on Munch's "The Scream" we get an analysis of the concept of painting a sound (something I for one had never really thought of before), but also a geographically centered history lesson on where exactly Munch's iconic image is placed. Did you know that one of Munch's friends had committed suicide there, or that right below the bridge where the main figure stands was an asylum where Munch's younger sister was housed? It's this sort of personalization and intimacy that repeatedly perks up interest in this series.
The series routinely opens up the proceedings to include some lovely shots of whatever country the painter at hand was working in, as well as various buildings from the time period. This makes the series as much a travelogue as an art history lesson, and provides some exceptional scenery to gaze at while listening to the well-written voiceover.
There are occasional missteps, however, albeit slight. Whose brilliant idea was it, for example, to use the Third Movement of Mahler's First Symphony (a minor key fantasia on "Three Blind Mice") as underscoring for the episode on "The Last Supper?" That is so patently wrong on so many levels that it begs the question to their music editor: had you thought of moving up one symphony, to Mahler's No.2 (The Resurrection), which might have been thematically (no pun intended) more apt?
Among the many artists covered in this simply superb series are Botticelli, Goya, Picasso, Dali, and Rodin. However, even with the less renowned painters like Hokusai, each episode provides such a wealth of historical and artistic information that you'll find yourself as enthralled as by the segments on the better known masters.