Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters, edited by Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, Thames & Hudson, RRP£30, 448 pages

Open any letter here and it compels — such is the force, honesty and lucidity of van Gogh’s literary expressiveness, echoing his qualities as a painter. Generously illustrated with the artist’s drawings, this is a perfect condensed version of the six-volume complete correspondence; among its miracles is optimism almost to the end.

Velázquez: The Complete Works, by José López-Rey and Odile Delenda, Taschen, RRP from £50, 416 pages

The pleasure and greatness of Velázquez trapped between hard covers: every figure is psychologically immediate yet complex, and rendered in a drama of light, colour and dazzling technique. The distant world of Spain’s Golden Age feels real, eternal; this supreme catalogue raisonné, by its scope, scale and sensitivity to image reproduction, was my best consolation this year for much missed grand European Old Master exhibitions.

The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame 1968-2011, by William Feaver, Bloomsbury, RRP£35, 592 pages

Freud’s governess remembered him as “very lively but not affectionate. Which I was very pleased about.” Volume 2 of Feaver’s biography is affectionate as well as lively, also hard-edged, clear-eyed, as Freud would have relished. Much is recounted in the artist’s own sardonic words, buoyed by fantastic gossip; it flows fast and long, and you close it reluctantly.

Best Books of the Year 2020

All this week, FT writers and critics share their favourites. Some highlights are:

Monday: Business by Andrew Hill
Tuesday: Economics by Martin Wolf
Wednesday: Politics by Gideon Rachman
Thursday: History by Tony Barber
Friday: Critics’ choice
Saturday: Crime by Barry Forshaw

Morozov: The Story of a Family and a Lost Collection, by Natalya Semenova, Yale, RRP£25, 288 pages

A century of Russian culture distilled in the story of the life, family and collection of the lavish, lazy, kindly, eccentric grandson of a serf who bought Monet and Matisse to Moscow, waited three years for the right “blue Gauguin” — and survived the first years of Bolshevik rule.

Raymond Briggs: The Illustrators Series, by Nicolette Jones, Thames & Hudson, RRP£18.99, 112 pages

“There are no good books which are only for children,” WH Auden said. This short, delightful illustrated biography evokes the man and mind behind The Snowman and Briggs’ other light-of-touch, deep-of-feeling, timelessly appealing stories, in the context of English social history.

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