The Art of Famous Book Covers

Gabe Habash -- October 9th, 2013

It’s often the case that a great book cover is created solely for the book itself (see the Vintage/Nabokov/John Gall series, which is one of the best ever), but sometimes a savvy designer finds an extant piece of art that’s so perfect it seems as if it were created just to be put on the jacket. Here are 9 of the best art-and-book-cover matches.

Click on the images below for high res.

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1. Underworld by Don DeLillo

The art on the cover: New York, 1972 by André Kertész

The iconic photo was taken the year before the official dedication ceremony for the World Trade Center, from Kertész’s apartment.

The story behind the choice for the photo as the cover, according to Don DeLillo’s Underworld: A Reader’s Guide:

Troubling yet inarguably heavy-handed in its dialectic, the image, even when the novel appeared in 1997, seemed to fit too perfectly DeLillo’s examination of the postmodern wasteland and the bleak possibilities of spiritual renewal in the age of multinational capital. With a foreboding play of light and shadow, Kertész’s photograph suggest a dystopian metropolis [...] DeLillo himself found the photograph but was worried that it might be too religious. His editor at Scribner, Nan Graham, then hired a photo researcher to find a cover image: “she came back with the same image DeLillo had found on his own” (Passaro, “Don DeLillo and the Towers”).

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2. The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

The art on the cover: Profile of a Young Woman by Giovanni Boldini

Published earlier this year, The Accursed is one of 2013′s best covers and also one of its creepiest, just by the simple decision of cutting off the image just below the young woman’s eyes. According to an interview in the Washington Post, Ecco’s art director Allison Saltzman wanted the cover to be both distinctive and capture the time period of the novel: “‘I also wanted to convey the book’s hothouse atmosphere of women succumbing to rumor and hysteria, temptation and eroticism.’ For Saltzman, Boldini’s painting evoked ‘the swooning vulnerability’ of the characters. ‘I also liked its ambiguity: Is she swooning in agony or in ecstasy?’”

In that same Post article, we get a look at the…not as good UK cover.

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3. The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

The art on the cover: Perseus and Andromeda by Titian

Iris Murdoch’s Booker-winning novel has had a variety of covers, and the Penguin cover featuring Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda has been replaced by this one. Titian’s painting, taken as a whole, depicts Andromeda chained to the shore while Perseus battles the serpent sent by Poseidon. Interestingly enough, the Penguin cover shows only Perseus, metaphorically keying in on the struggles Charles Arrowby has in the book.

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4. The Verificationist by Donald Antrim

The art on the cover: A Woodland Road with Travelers by Jan Brueghel the Elder

2013 MacArthur Genius Fellow Donald Antrim’s third novel, The Verificationist, has a few handsome paperback covers (here and here), but none are as perfect or as beautiful as the cover for the hardback–a small slice of Brueghel the Elder’s sprawling A Woodland Road with Travelers. The reason why this particular slice was chosen is the little dog at the bottom.

Deep into the novel, this section describing the painting appears:

The pilgrims with their overloaded carts, on the other hand, mainly travel away from the viewer; and there is a feeling that these good people have left their homes and whatever blood ties exist for them. They plod with their loads toward the break in the forest, toward a town or village with its church steeple faintly discernible, rising up at the vanishing point of the horizon. A few travelers, and a small black, brown, and white dog have stopped to sit and rest beneath the trees in the lower right corner of the scene. The dog peers back along the road, back into the dark woods toward unseen things that have been abandoned or lost in the recent past; and the dog gazes, as well, into the eye of the viewer standing before the painting. Caravans proceed toward and away from the town. The wealthy horsemen ride heedlessly into the forest. The mood of the painting is neither happy nor sad, frightening nor liberating; it is all these things.

If you look at the painting, you will see the dog staring out at you. If you move to the left or the right, the dog’s eyes will find you–exactly as the eyes of figures in paintings are expected to do.

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5. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

The art on the cover: Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau

The Moreau painting, referenced in the first section of Bolaño’s novel, was originally the idea of editor Lorin Stein. Charlotte Strick, the designer of the cover, said: “The Moreau painting is apocalyptic and kind of insane, Lorin thought Bolaño and Moreau would be an interesting pairing. Both were brilliant artists with fantastic views.”

The hardcover and paperback editions only have the Moreau painting, but the best-looking edition divides the epic into three volumes in one slipcase and also includes covers featuring Cy Twombly’s chaotic line scribbles (this is the cover for the infamous “The Part About the Crimes”) and, because of Achimboldi’s preoccupation with seaweed, Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities (the third volume’s cover).

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6. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The art on the cover: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo by Hiroshige (Sugatami Bridge, Omokage Bridge and Jariba at Takata)

Part of Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, which depicts various tea-houses, restaurants, and landscapes, the 116th was chosen for Mitchell’s novel. The ukiyo-e print (which is interestingly from the “Winter” division of the series–not the “Autumn” division), shows the Kanda River, the Omokage Bridge, the Hiwaka rice field and Hiwaka Shrine, and the Sugatami Bridge. Hiroshige worked on his series in the same period as the events which take place in Mitchell’s novel.

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7. History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason

The art on the cover: La reproduction interdite by René Magritte

Unofficially, Magritte’s art might get used on more book covers than any other artist (Camus, Freud, and Calvino have all had covers bearing his work). Add to that list the first edition of Richard Mason’s History of a Pleasure Seeker, which used one of Magritte’s most famous paintings, La reproduction interdite (“Not to be Reproduced”). Interestingly enough, other editions of Mason’s book had covers that look like this and this.

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8. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

The art on the cover: Portrait of Marguerite van Mons by Theo van Rysselberghe

Portrait of Marguerite Van Mons is from the Impressionism period of Rysselberghe’s career, which were more subdued than much of his other work. At the time of the painting in 1886, Marguerite was 10 years old and Rysselberghe was 23. Bowen’s novel, which was named one of the 100 best modern novels by both Time and the Modern Library, follows 16-year-old orphan Portia Quayne’s move to London.

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9. Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme

The art on the cover: Two Figures (pastel on paper) by Willem de Kooning

Barthelme and de Kooning were friends, often part of the crowd (which included Jackson Pollock and Frank O’Hara) at the Cedar Tavern, and Barthelme himself was a devotee of Abstract Expressionism. Here he is in a 1981 interview with the Paris Review:

Abstraction is a little heaven I can’t quite get to. How do you achieve, for example, “messy”? De Kooning can do “messy” by making a charcoal stroke over paint and then smudging same with his talented thumb—in prose the same gesture tends to look like simple ineptitude. De Kooning has a whole vocabulary of bad behavior that enables him to set up the most fruitful kinds of contradictions. It frees him. I have trouble rendering breaking glass.

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