ANGLO-SAXON ART: From the Seventh Century to the Norman Conquest, by David M. Wilson (The Overlook Press, $45). David Wilson, director of The British Museum, brings to his latest book about the "Northern World" a lifetime devoted to Viking and Anglo-Saxon culture, a scholar's passion for his material, and a prose style of enviable grace and clarity. Here are pages devoted to the Lindisfarne gospels and the Book of Durrow, the decorative arts (embroidery, jewelry, bookbinding), the stone crosses that dot the English countryside (one of which, the Ruthwell Cross, inspired the Anglo-Saxon poetic masterpiece, The Dream of the Rood). With its recurrent interlace patterning and a focus on power -- martial, personal and religious -- Anglo-Saxon art provides both a timeless esthetic pleasure and an implicit commentary on its warlike, yet monkish era.
ANTOINE WATTEAU, by Donald Posner (Cornell, $75). To many museum-goers, the show of shows for 1984 was the National Gallery's Watteau exhibition. The catalogue to that show -- a real bargain for its descriptive listing of the paintings and drawings, as well as its fine interpretative essays -- may be supplemented by this sumptuous, illustrated study. Unlike the Goncourt brothers, who in a classic essay emphasized the wistful Watteau, Posner maintains that the painter's work reveals a bright, lively temperament and that he depicts "a joyful affirmation of love as the central experience of human existence." Naturally, to make his case, Posner relies on Watteau's many examples of "Fetes galantes," including that greatest of all, "The Pilgrimage to Cythera." Anyone who envies the elegance, wit, and eroticism of the 18th century -- as who does not? -- will certainly linger over this delicious book.
INGRES, In Pursuit of Perfection: The Art of J.-A.-D. Ingres, by Patricia Condon with Marjorie B. Cohn and Agnes Mongan; edited by Debra Edelstein (J.B. Speed Art MuseumIndiana University Press, $45). Ingres' painting partakes of a Raphael-like purity and stillness, which at its best achieves a classic perfection (notably in the contemporary portraits, such as that of M. Bertin) -- and at its worst becomes 19th- century kitsch (especially in the mythological and history paintings). But even that campy monumentality possesses an undisputed charm, and Ingres' technical skills are unmatched: he is a painter with a draughtsman's eye. This aspect is brilliantly set forth by Marjorie Cohn (conservator of prints and drawings at the Fogg Art Museum) in an essay on the position of the replica in Ingres' career. But those more interested in fleshly matters can flip to the reproductions of the Grand Odalisque, La Source, and related harem subjects.
MANET: 1832-1883, edited by Francoise Cachin and Charles S. Moffett, in collaboration with Michel Melot (The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, $65). People new to art often name Monet their favorite painter; but eventually that artist's work can come to seem a bit soft, even saccharine, and one tires of all that dappled sunlight. Then is the time for Manet, an artist of hard-edges, provocative themes, city life -- all of it subsumed to an unrivalled painterly sense. Boulevardier, admirer of women (think of the dazzlingly cold portrait of the prostitute Olympia), trained according to academic standards and yet a defender of Impressionism, Manet seems a true modern, like his friend Baudelaire a revolutionary practitioner of his art. In this magisterial volume -- the catalogue of a major retrospective held in Paris and New York -- Manet's paintings and prints receive handsome reproduction and expert, lucid commentary. The essays on Olympia, The Portrait of Zola, The Dead Toreador and The Fifer are models of succinct history and interpretation. More than many art books, this is one to read as well as look at.
JAMES McNEIL WHISTLER: At the Freer Gallery, by David Park Curry (Norton, $50). This past year saw the 150th anniversary of Whistler's birth, and the Freer Museum has celebrated the event handsomely, both in an exhibition and in this album. Known for his paintings (of his mother, London river scenes at night), Whistler may have achieved his greatest artistic triumphs in his Peacock Room -- Japonisme meets interior decoration -- and in his prints and drawings, most of which are, to abandon all critical discourse, breathtakingly beautiful. Curry, a former curator of the Freer, displays all these riches and provides brief notes on each work. This is certainly an attractive volume of Whistleriana, but above all one that should send Washingtonians scurrying down to the Mall to see the real thing.
RENOIR: His Life, Art and Letters, by Barbara Ehrlich White (Abrams, $67.50). Renoir rivaled Picasso in output, but he is familiar -- almost to the point of contempt -- for his bouncy, pink-skinned nudes and for his soft-focus impressionism. He is certainly one of the most innocently enthusiastic painters of female flesh, perhaps the greatest since Rubens. But Renoir also claims attention as a sculptor, landscape artist, and portraitist. White, who has devoted more than two decades to her research, here offers a definitive biographical and pictorial account of Renoir's career, one that chronicles not only his artistic triumphs but also his very human sufferings with arthritis.
AMERICAN IMPRESSIONISM, by William H. Gerdts (Abbeville, $85). Like the Luminists, with whom they share a passion for depicting light and air, the American Impressionists have recently been enjoying a renaissance. Of course, Childe Hassam and Mary Cassatt have never been out of favor, but they have now been joined by Frederick Frieseke, Thomas Dewing, Joseph De Camp, John Twachtman, and William Merritt Chase (this last the subject of another fine new book, William Merritt Chase, by Ronald G. Pisano, published by the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington). Gerdts ably surveys this whole movement, but as always with sumptuous books like these the reproductions -- of fields full of flowers, seascapes, reclining ladies (dressed and en deshabille) -- remind us of how wonderful even minor painters can be.