HELLO HELLO!!! I’m so excited about today’s post, which is all about…PAINTINGS AS BOOK COVERS. this started out as just a basic post featuring a bunch of books with paintings on their covers, but then I decided that I wanted to actually feature the original paintings in the post, and then it snowballed into a fully-fledged discussion post and the rest is history.
when I first started working on the post, I did a cursory search of this cover trend to see if there were some listicles or articles about it or something, but surprisingly enough, I couldn’t find anything. the only thing I was really able to find was this article delving into the some of the factors contributing to the popularity of this trend and some examples of books that fit into it. effectively, what this meant was that I had to scour my brain and Goodreads to come up with as many examples of this trend as possible. once I did that, I had to do some serious sleuthing to find the names of some of the paintings on these covers–some publishers make it so unnecessarily hard (the Google Lens feature, which I’d never even heard of before this, came in very handy)–but I am nothing if not persistent, so here we are. 👀
before I begin, some things to note:
- I won’t be talking about the history of these paintings because a) I am nowhere near qualified to do that (I know virtually nothing about art history) and b) it’s a lot of work and I just wanna talk about Pretty Covers lol.
- so yeah, I’m just going to be talking about my own personal impressions of these paintings rather than analyzing how they/their histories relate to the contents of the books they’re on the covers of. I have read most of the books on this list, though, so I will talk generally about how the paintings match (or don’t match) the ~Vibes~ of these books (basically like what I do in the posts I’ve previously written about book covers — e.g. this one, this one, and this one).
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
“Portrait of a Young Woman in White” (1798) by Jacques-Louis David
There was no way I could do a post about books with paintings on their covers and not include My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It’s simply too iconic of a cover-painting combo to overlook. The fact that this is such an easily recognizable cover really speaks to how effective it is. In my head–and, I think, a lot of other readers’ heads–this painting is just The Ottessa Moshfegh Painting. The painting is already so interesting to look at: the solitary figure of the woman, her very emo (for lack of a better word) expression and body language. But the way it’s been edited for Moshfegh’s cover makes it all the more interesting, I think: the extremely vibrant, very un-historical-looking pink that they’ve chosen for the font marries really well with the painting. It’s a simple edit, but nothing more is needed: the painting is already doing all the visual heavy-lifting here anyway.
(Also, if you’ll notice, they slightly edited the painting on the cover so it wouldn’t be NSFW. 👀)
Woman, Eating by Claire Kohda
“Boy with Basket of Fruit” (1593) by Caravaggio
This is an interesting one. There’s actually a whole note in the back of this book where the designer, Alicia Tatone, talks about why they chose this particular painting for the cover:
“Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket of Fruit felt just right: the sidelong glance peering back at the viewer, the lush basket filled with food that Lydia can never eat, not to mention Caravaggio’s own less-than-pristine reputation, not dissimilar to our antagonist’s. The final touch: a perfectly-placed crack in the canvas–or is it a bite mark?”
I do like this cover. The original painting as a whole doesn’t feel like it matches the book, but the way that they’ve cropped it for the book works well, I think. I’m not sure about the “crack” in the painting–it doesn’t do anything for me personally–but love the typography (the rotated O’s and the dripping N! [very Killing Eve]); it’s sharp where the painting is soft, and that’s why it works.
If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga
“A Bischari Warrior” (1872) by Jean-Léon Gérôme
I’ve already talked about this cover in my “Favourite Covers of 2022” post, but I still wanted to mention it here because I love it so much. What I’m noticing in this post is that when it comes to books with paintings on their covers, it’s not just about the painting itself, but also how the designer uses that painting. That design element is important so that the cover doesn’t just feel like an exact replica of the painting with a bunch of text slapped on it. The little things–like the pink text on the Moshfegh cover–matter, and I think this cover is a great example of how important modifying the painting actually is. I love that they’ve cropped the painting so the focus is more on the man’s face, and like I said in the post I mentioned, I love the other design elements too: the lime green text, how big the font is, the little red accent on the side.
Too Much by Rachel Vorona Cote
“Helen of Troy” (1867) by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys
Another one where cropping works to the book’s advantage. This cover is so striking; it’s one of the first things that drew me to this book (which, incidentally enough, I DNFd, but that’s beside the point lol). I love the original painting: the texture on the hair is so beautifully done, the roundness of the woman’s face and shoulders, that facial expression!!! The way that the designer has cropped the painting really allows them to focus on that wonderful expression–what even is it? annoyed? angry? pouty?–and brings the book’s historical focus on the Victorian era to the fore.
A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers
“Sigismunda mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo” (1759) by William Hogarth
An absolutely stunning painting. I’m especially obsessed with the light and shadow on the fabric of the clothes. They’ve cropped this painting quite a bit, and I think generally that works for the cover–the squeezed heart with blood dripping out of it! it’s kind of impossible for an image like that not to grab your attention. However, I can’t help but feel like the arresting quality of the painting as a whole gets lost in its being cropped so tightly.
Nobody Somebody Anybody by Kelly McClorey
“The Maid” (1862) by Wilhelm August Lebrecht Amberg
This is one example where I don’t think enough was done to the painting that was used. I love the painting; there’s something really fun and interesting about a maid just chugging a glass of who-knows-what as she’s on her way to who-knows-where with a tray of drinks and plates. I like the original painting–I just feel like they didn’t really do much with it in the book cover. It’s slightly cropped, with some text on it, and that’s about it. The Moshfegh cover didn’t have much on it, either, but I feel like there, the cover was more effective whereas here the cover is nice but not quite as expressive or evocative on its own.
Abigail by Magda Szabó (tr. Len Rix)
“Händehochhaltende (Antworten). Skizze” (“Hands-free (answers). Sketch”) (1895) by Otto Meyer Amden
This one is pretty simple; the cover is more abstract than the previous ones I’ve looked at, but I do like it. I’m a big fan of NYRB’s book designs: they’re simple, yes, but they really work, and I love how cohesive they are together. They haven’t done much with the painting here, but I love that they stuck with the unusual bright-orange-plus-gray colour combo from the painting. That very bright, vibrant orange stands out so nicely on the cover.
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
“The Martyr of Soloway” (c.1871) by John Everett Millais
This one stands out a bit from the previous examples because it obviously doesn’t use the whole painting. But that’s what I mean when I say it comes down to what the designer does with the cover–and it’s done so well here. I think the other design elements on the cover–the shark and dog–have also come from other paintings, but I decided to focus on the woman in the middle because she’s the main focal point of the cover.
I just adore this cover. I love the collage-iness of it all and I think the designer has done an excellent job at bringing together all these disparate elements and cohesively bringing them together. (Also, the painting, as with so many of the others I’ve featured, is just beautifully done.)
All’s Well by Mona Awad
“Mischief and Repose” (1895) by John William Godward
Again, as with The Bass Rock, the cover of this one takes a part of a painting and overlays it on top of a new design. This one is less effective of a design for me, though. I feel like they’ve cheapened the painting–which is so lush and detailed–by putting it on this garish blue background and adding weird little clipart-looking arrows to the woman’s body (????). Like I don’t hate this cover or anything–it’s fine at best–but I do think it could’ve been much nicer.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
“The Hunters in the Snow” (1565) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
(Thank you to @littlecassreads on Instagram for reminding me of this one!)
Another absolutely stunning painting. This one is so different from the ones I’ve talked about before (notably, it’s also the oldest painting in this list). I love the colours, the texture (in the sky and the snow), the trees–there’s such a lovely sense of dynamism and life to it all. And I do like the way it’s been edited on the cover of the book. You obviously miss a lot because it’s been cropped so much, but the overall effect is nice. The book itself is a quiet story about a small community, and I think the cover conveys that well enough.
Inventory by Darran Anderson
“Paddy Flanagan” (1908) by George Bellows
(Thank you to Rachel from Pace, Amore, Libri for reminding me of this one!) (ok but seriously Rachel has an amazing list of books with paintings on their covers!!!)
Finally, this cover, which I also mentioned in another covers post before. The painting itself is so striking, and the way that they’ve edited it for the book cover makes it work even better for that book. They’ve added a bit of texture to the left (are those bullet holes?), as well as introduced that light flare, which helps make the cover more dynamic, and also evokes that sense of warping or change–like something happened to this image that’s distorted its quality in some way and allowed light to leak in to it.
those are all the paintings I have for now! I hope you enjoyed reading this!! maybe if can compile a big enough list of these in the future, I’ll write another post about them, but for now, I’ve pretty much exhausted my list lol. This was really fun, though. I loved seeing what the original paintings looked like, and looking at the ways in which some of these designers have modified them for their respective book covers.
let me know which of these covers you like the most–and least!–and if there are any other examples of book covers with paintings on them that you think are especially memorable or well done. 😊