Art books are often subject to a law of inverse proportions, which states that the bigger and glossier the plates the more turgid and impenetrable the text. The best, however, save their heft for the writing and scholarship.

Notable among recent studies of artists is Alex Danchev's Cézanne: A Life (Profile). The Aix-man is well-trodden turf, but Danchev portrays him as a literary and cultural construct as well as an artist. The biographical details are here, from his struggle to become accepted (his first one-man show only came at 56) through his slightly shame-faced marriage to his emergence as a hero figure to Braque and Picasso. So too are the thoughts of an array of writers and painters: his boyhood friend Zola was a lifelong proselytiser and writers from DH Lawrence to EE Cummings all had their say. Not everyone was complimentary: Jules Renard, for example, thought that "One would have to like a lot of rubbish to like this carpenter of colour." This multiplicity of viewpoints presents Cézanne in the round and gives weight to his belief that "All my compatriots are arseholes beside me."

A more orthodox though equally impressive biography is Sheila Hale's Titian: His Life (HarperPress). Titian represented the Venetian wing of the great high Renaissance quartet that also figured Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, but what Hale's meticulous scholarship reveals is how hard he had to work to get there. Titian looked not to the papacy but to the Habsburgs for patronage. After the beautiful and mysterious allegorical pastorals of his younger years it was for Philip II that he painted the Poesie – the series of works after Ovid that are a high point of western art. He was one of the great portraitists, too, and the progress of the age's great and not-so-good through his studio gives Hale the chance to show not just the painter but Venice and Europe's powerlist at a moment of huge cultural significance.

In his previous books Ross King has shown his ability to use an individual work of art as a means to look at both the figures and the mindset that brought it into being; in Leonardo and the Last Supper (Bloomsbury) his focus is the painter-sage's wrecked mural in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Leonardo called painting "dumb poetry" but the Last Supper is anything but: he put into it everything he knew about composition, gesture and colour. King deftly explains how Leonardo developed each element as well as his quirks and those of his patron Ludovico "il Moro" Sforza. This account is a good deal more vivid than the ghostly fresco itself that, thanks to Leonardo's inexperience with painting on plaster, began to deteriorate in his own lifetime: only 20% of the existing paint is his.

Will Gompertz, the BBC's bouncy arts editor, takes a different approach. His What Are You Looking At? (Viking) is a gallop through 150 years of modern art in which he ticks off the innumerable "isms" that have sprouted since Marcel Duchamp displayed a urinal as a work of art in 1917. Gompertz sashays further back to the Impressionists who "metaphorically pulled down their trousers and waved their collective derrières at the establishment". That is the sort of vernacular he employs throughout and if you can survive it, his book is in fact a useful primer that puts the 20th-century's art movements into order.

The most handsome large format art book around is Johannes Grave's study of the great German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (Prestel). Friedrich believed that "A picture must not be invented, it must be felt," and with his haunting landscapes, often with a foreground figure seen from behind, he was adroit at summoning complex emotions about divinity, nature and man's role in the world. While Grave's text draws on recently discovered letters, it is more of an examination of how the paintings work than a life of the artist: it is the 225 immersive illustrations that really justify the book's price.

Pairs of books by two distinctive critics offer overviews of the wider arts world. Until Further Notice, I am Alive (Granta) is a philosophical memoir by the critic-illustrator Tom Lubbock of the discovery of the brain tumour that was to kill him in 2011, recounted with the same clarity of voice that marked his art writing. A tranche of his pieces, dealing with everything from Samuel Palmer to Harry Beck's Tube map, is offered in English Graphic (Frances Lincoln). Brian Sewell's Outsider II (Quartet) is an unembarrassed account of his rise to national recognition with his role in the Anthony Blunt affair at its centre. Naked Emperors (Quartet), meanwhile, collates his reviews on contemporary British art, in which he lays about him at the expected names, from Serota to Hirst, not always as indiscriminately as is sometimes assumed.

• To order titles with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to


Michael Prodger

The GuardianTramp

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