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Which of us, in the presence of a painting, has not felt that we lack the keys to decipher it? We feel an emotional response, but the work still seems to evade our understanding. Francoise Barbe-Gall combines a nuanced understanding of the way viewers respond to paintings with a rich knowledge of their context and circumstances of their creation. The result is like a tour of an extraordinary museum in the company of a gentle yet authoritative guide. A fascinating range of works are grouped in six thought-provoking chapters that examine our different responses to the ways in which paintings define reality. The author takes as her point of departure the impressions that we all feel when confronted by a canvas and takes us on a voyage of discovery fired by her own passionate enthusiasm for the subject. What is the painting's relationship with the real world? Has the artist idealized nature, or distorted it? Did they want to shock the viewer, or provide consolation? With a clear approach and straightforward yet subtle analysis, the meaning of each work slowly becomes clear. From Raphael's penetrating character study of Castiglione, through Hopper's cinematic take on the wee small hours of the morning, Barbe-Gall begins by covering a number of ostensibly realistic works, made from the stuff of everyday life. Going in quite the other direction, she then looks at the way paintings can express moments of heightened reality, from the perfection of Boticelli's Primavera to the arresting glance of Vermeer's Girl with the Pearl Earring. She discusses paintings that distort the visible world (Parmigianino's Madonna with an improbably long neck, Dali's melting clocks) and those that sow confusion to make us pay closer attention to the real world (Cezanne's depiction of a forest glade, a mysterious fifteenth century altarpiece). Questions of history, style, iconography and composition are dealt in context of the paintings she discusses. Lavishly illustrated and featuring thirty-six fascinating works from Raphael to Rothko, Breughel to Bacon, this is also a magnificent art book.