2021 Best Art History Books

Since I have focused so much in the past on being a self-taught artist, I thought it would be nice to offer a list of the best art history books, so that you can better understand and love the art history that you yourself are now in the process of making.

Knowing and appreciating art history will make you a better artist, and will not only make you know, understand and appreciate the great artists of the past better, but it will also help you know, understand and appreciate yourself better.

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Table of Contents

Why is it Important to Study Art History?

In the last one hundred years all of the art forms have gone through absolutely incredible changes – revolutions, really – where each and every aspect of artistic creation has been challenged. 

In visual arts, for example, we had periods of Fauvism, where artists began to use colors in challenging new ways, Cubism, where basic shapes and relationships broke down, Abstract Art, where paintings no longer needed to portray or represent anything, and Dadaism, where, well, things got even weirder, and a toilet seat hanging in a museum might not only be considered art, but fine art, and somehow “important.”

These are just four of many, many examples of modern schools and movements which broke down our conceptions and practices of art, until eventually it seemed that we could do absolutely anything we wanted – art didn’t need to look like anything, it didn’t need to be pretty or nice, we could now abandon color theory, composition, perspective and even basic representation – it is like the entire history of art, thousands of years of it, had been left behind.

But here’s something that every single good art history teacher – or any good art teacher of any type, including any art historian– will tell you again and again: all of the great artists involved in these revolutions, Picasso, Duchamp, Matisse, Kandinsky, all of them, were deeply and completely in touch with the entirety of art history. 

They knew and loved history of art, were familiar with all of the important artists, styles and movements that preceded them, had the past not just in their minds but in their bones. It was, indeed, only their understanding, love and respect for the past that made it possible for them to change the future.

And today, in our age of unprecedented artistic and creative freedom, it is more important than ever to know, understand and even feel the great story of art as it has unfolded before us. 

When freedom is grounded in knowledge of what has already been accomplished, understanding how this was done, and respect and appreciation towards those great artists who paved the way, we then have true freedom because we can accomplish anything.

Because here’s a little secret about these revolutions, these incredible moments which really did change everything for us as artists today: Fauvism, with its purple skies and green faces, is all about color theory; Cubism, with its weirdly sliced and rearranged elements, is all about compositional theory; Abstraction, with its apparently random squirls and swirls and blobs, is all about representation; and Dada, with its toilet seats, is all about, well, toilet seats – some things there’s just no understanding…

Overview: 3 Best Art History Books in 2021

  1. The Story of Art
  2. The Story of Art

    EH Gombrich :: Phaidon Press :: 16th Edition :: 1995 :: 688 Pages

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  3. The Visual Arts: A History
  4. The Visual Arts: A History

    Hugh Honour & John Fleming :: Laurence King Publishing :: 7th Edition :: 2013 :: 996 Pages

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  5. Gardner's Art Through the Ages: A Global History
  6. Gardner's Art Through the Ages: A Global History

    Helen Gardner & Fred Kleiner :: Cengage Learning :: 16th Edition :: 2019 :: 1264 Pages

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Even if you have gone to the best art school, or already made a deep and thorough study of art history, keeping in touch with it now, learning more and more, and just immersing yourself in the beauty and power of the most important art and artists will always be a good, fruitful and worthwhile endeavor.

If you want to put together a great art library or simply want to get one or a few of the best art history books currently in print, read on!

We will break this bibliography down into three basic sections:

  • General Best Art History Books
  • Best Art History Books about the Important Art Movements
  • Best Art History Books about the Important Artists

I would definitely make sure to get and really go through at least some of the general best art history books, but exploring any specific artist (who all had pretty fascinating lives) or any particular era or movement can be absolutely captivating as well. Really, all of these books are so rich and interesting – and besides, almost all of them are, as you can probably imagine, lavishly illustrated!

The Most Comprehensive Library of the Best Art History Books

The Grove Dictionary of Art: 34 Volumes

Jane Turner (ed.) :: Oxford University Press :: Revised Edition :: 2003 :: 2,600 Pages (34 Volumes)

One of the most acclaimed art historians, Jane Turner, created the most comprehensive and important English language reference art history books. The Grove dictionary comprises 34 volumes and is staggering in its depth, completeness and value – a truly crucial part of any serious art history books library. Don’t worry, though, they get cheaper and smaller from here on out!

General Art History Books – From Caves to Computers

Art History Classics: 7 Time Honored Complete Histories of (Mostly) Western Art

Art = Discovering Infinite Connections in Art History

Metropolitan Museum of Art :: Phaidon Press :: 1st Edition :: 2020 :: 448 Pages

Ok, this one isn’t exactly time-honored, and is in fact brand new, but it is already being hailed as the most important recent art history book of stunning scholarly brilliance and importance, and perhaps the most readable and enjoyable complete art history, created by some of the most acclaimed art historians of our era.

Art History Vol 1

Marilyn Stokstad & Michael Cothren :: Pearson Publishing :: 6th Edition :: 2017 :: 656 pages

Art History Vol 2

Marilyn Stokstad & Michael Cothren :: Pearson Publishing :: 6th Edition :: 2017 :: 668 pages

Widely considered to be the finest and most comprehensive from art history books, including important art from many cultures around the globe, this magnificent two-volume set is known for its warm and welcoming writing style, created by Marilyn Stokstad & Michael Cothren, brilliant art historians.

The Story of Art

EH Gombrich :: Phaidon Press :: 16th Edition :: 1995 :: 688 Pages

Story of Art – art history told in beautiful narrative form, like a long, fascinating story unfolding in your mind and heart, from a lovely and deeply involved storyteller and art historian. A true classic!

The Visual Arts: A History

Hugh Honour & John Fleming :: Laurence King Publishing :: 7th Edition :: 2013 :: 996 Pages

A thoughtful and thorough art history that is perfect for all levels of readers, with or without previous study or knowledge, and written in an unpretentious and accessible style by some of the most celebrated art historians.

The Most Used Art History Textbook

Gardner's Art Through the Ages: A Global History

Helen Gardner & Fred Kleiner :: Cengage Learning :: 16th Edition :: 2019 :: 1264 Pages

Probably the most used textbook for art history for almost a century now, Gardner’s Art Through The Ages classic, has been completely revamped and updated for a new generation, but with total respect for the original work and what makes it so very special. By one of the most praised art historians of our era.

The Short Story of Art: A Pocket Guide

Susie Hodges :: Laurence King Publishing :: 1st Edition :: 2017 :: 224 Pages

A very short but remarkably inclusive history of the most important art and artists, exceptionally well written and understandable – you will still want a more complete treatment, but this is a wonderful companion and take-along volume.

Gateways to Art

Debra DeWitte & Ralph Larmann :: Thames & Hudson :: 3rd Edition :: 2018 :: 720 Pages

A fairly new complete history of art, DeWitte and Larmann’s definitive book is fast becoming a classic. One of the most popular textbooks in colleges and universities is brilliant, complete, well written, and quite fascinating.

Overview: 5 Accessible Art History Books for Beginners

Theese art history books for beginners will satisfy artists and art enthusiasts of all ages!

Art: The Definitive Visual Guide

Andrew Graham Dixon :: DK Publishing :: 1st Edition :: 2018 :: 612 Pages

A beautiful book which tells the great story of art through stunning illustrations, intelligent and well organized layout and short but surprisingly apt and insightful descriptions, written by one of the most acclaimed art historians of our time. It is one of the most well-rounded art history books for beginners.

Art, Second Edition: A Visual History

Robert Cumming :: DK Publishing :: 2nd Edition :: 2020 :: 416 Pages

Not as deep or thorough as many of the full histories above, art historian Cumming’s work is still quite useful, very easy to read and one of the most beautiful book from art history books for beginners overall.

Artists: Their Lives and Works

Ross King :: DK Publishing :: 1st Edition :: 2017 :: 360 Pages

It is a brilliantly conceived art book about the most important artists and their place in art history, told through images and brief snippets of text. Amazing example from our list of art history books for beginners, kids, and as a quick reference.

Art That Changed the World

DK Publishing :: 1st Edition :: 2013 :: 400 Pages

Teaching art history by focusing on specific movements and their most important artists and works, this imminently browsable artbook uses short paragraphs and thousands of illustrations and gives a great overview – if not a deep or insightful treatment. One of the best example from our list of art history books for beginners, specifically great for young adults!

A delightfully funny and oddly informative book – not the most exhaustive book from the best art history books for beginners, by any means, but this quirky little volume can offer details and insights even the weightiest tomes overlook.

Art History Books from the World’s Greatest Museums

Art history as told through the paintings of 3 of the world’s great collections: The Louvre in Paris, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Beautiful and luxurious volumes that make great art books and wonderful gifts.

The Louvre: All the Paintings

Vincent Pomarède :: Black Dog & Leventhal :: 1st Edition :: 2011 :: 784 Pages

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings

Thomas Campbell & Kathryn Calley Galitz :: Skira Rizzoli Electa :: 1st Edition :: 2016 :: 544 Pages

The Hermitage: 250 Masterworks

Mikhail Piotrovsky :: Skira Rizzoli Electa :: 1st Edition :: 2014 :: 288 Pages

Also recommended:

Vatican: All the Paintings

The Complete Collection of Old Masters, Plus More than 300 Sculptures, Maps, Tapestries, and other Artifacts

Art of Different Cultures and People

Stokstad and Cothren’s Art History is a wonderful exception, but as a rule many art history books tend to be fairly Eurocentric, focusing on European and North American art, artists, schools, styles and movements (Western art), so I thought it would be good to include at least a few art history books covering different cultures and peoples.

Asian Art

Dorinda Neave, Lara Blanchard & Marika Sardar :: Pearson Publishers :: 1st Edition :: 2014 :: 432 Pages

With its fascinating study of the independence and interrelationships of various cultures and regions throughout Asia, this art book offers a brief but fairly comprehensive overview of Asian art history.

The Art of India: Traditions of Indian Sculpture, Painting and Architecture

Vidya Dehejia :: Phaidon Press :: 1st Edition :: 1997 :: 448 Pages

One of the great classics in art history books, and yet as unappreciated, even unknown, as Indian art in general is to the western world and western art, this brilliant book is written in a scholarly, responsible and comprehensive way, and yet remains totally approachable and understandable, with sparkling prose and beautiful illustrations.

History of Art in Africa: Second Edition

Monica Blackmun Visona, Robin Poynor & Herbert Cole :: Prentice Hall :: 2nd Edition :: 2007 :: 560 Pages

Only in its second edition this book is already a classic, brightly written and painstakingly researched, a brilliant and comprehensive work of scholarship in this woefully neglected area in history of art.

Islamic Art: Architecture, Painting, Calligraphy, Ceramics, Glass, Carpets

Luca Mozzati :: Prestel Publishing :: 1st Edition :: 2019 :: 320 Pages

An incredibly beautiful book which offers a great overview of this most ancient and extraordinary art history. We still don’t have a good full history of Middle Eastern art in English, but Mozzati’s work is amazing for what it is, and fairly complete and comprehensive anyway.

Other recommendations:

Fascinating images of native North American art!

Art Through The Human History

Prehistoric Art History

Images of the Ice Age

Paul Bahn :: Oxford University Press :: 1ST Edition :: 2016 :: 600 Pages

A fascinating and comprehensive study of prehistoric art as well as a brilliant collection of images from caves and other sites around the world, including pieces in antler, ivory and bone.

Ancient and Classical Art History

The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Art and Architecture

Clemente Marconi (ed.) :: Oxford University Press :: 1st Edition :: 2018 :: 728 Pages

The most valuable book of ancient and classical art, by the scholars who know it best, this Oxford Handbook still sets the standard.

The Art of Ancient Egypt: Revised Edition

Gay Robins :: Oxford University Press :: 2nd Edition :: 2006 :: 272 Pages

Beautifully illustrated and easy to read and understand, this book does a surprisingly good job of covering three millennia of Egyptian art history and its cultural, religious and political significance.

Medieval Art History

Experiencing Medieval Art (Rethinking the Middle Ages)

Herbert Kessler :: University of Toronto Press :: 1st Paperback Edition :: 2019

An affordable paperback edition of the great recent classic which has revolutionized how we think about medieval art and the middle ages in general.

The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture

Colum Hourihane (ed.) :: Oxford University Press :: Illustrated Edition :: 2012 :: 4,048 Pages (6 Volumes)

This six-volume set is the absolute reference, and indispensable to any serious student of medieval art and history.

Renaissance & Mannerist Art History

History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture

Frederick Hartt :: Harry N Abrams :: 4th Edition :: 1994 :: 696 Pages

The most scholarly and comprehensive affordable history of Italian Renaissance art, and at the same time a thoroughly enjoyable book, shining with love and enthusiasm for the subject.

The Grove Encyclopedia of Northern Renaissance Art

Gordon Campbell (ed.) :: Oxford University Press :: Illustrated Edition :: 2009 :: 2,328 Pages (4 Volumes)

This Grove set is another indispensable reference work in a staggeringly complete and deep survey of the Renaissance in Northern Europe among art history books.

The High Renaissance and Mannerism: Italy, the North, and Spain, 1500-1600

Linda Murray :: Thames and Hudson :: Reprint Edition :: 1985 :: 287 Pages

A clear and accessible study of the extraordinary developments in art after the death of Raphael.

Baroque and Rococo Art History

Baroque and Rococo Art and Architecture

Robert Neuman :: Pearson Publishing :: 1st Edition :: 2012 :: 480 Pages

Considered the most authoritative single volume history of the Baroque and Rococo eras in both art and architecture.

Neoclassical Art History

Historical Dictionary of Neoclassical Art and Architecture

Allison Lee Palmer :: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers :: 2nd Edition :: 2020 :: 412 Pages

The most scholarly and complete reference on the important era leading from grand Baroque excesses to personal Romantic explorations of self, nature and god.

Romantic Art History

Romantic Art

William Vaughan :: Thames and Hudson :: 1st Edition :: 1978 :: 288 Pages

A highly respected art history book on one of the most important, and least written about, periods in art history.

Historical Dictionary of Romantic Art and Architecture

Allison Lee Palmer :: Scarecrow Press :: 1st Edition :: 2011 :: 304 Pages

One of art history books, by the most acclaimed art historians and authors, Allison Lee Palmer, this historical dictionary provides short but substantial profiles of the most important artists, works of art, movements and philosophies of this crucial period.

Impressionism Art History

Impressionism: Reimagining Art

Norbert Wolf :: Prestel Publishers :: 1st Edition :: 2015 :: 272 Pages

A fresh and irresistibly enthusiastic look at this most beloved of art eras, from a true expert and great writer – lavishly illustrated, this book is as beautiful as it is important.

The Impressionists: Their Lives And Works In 350 Images

Robert Katz & Celestine Dars :: Lorenz Books :: 1st Edition :: 2016 :: 256 Pages

A gloriously beautiful book, with interesting and helpful descriptions of the most important artists and works of art of the Impressionist era.

Modern Art and Contemporary Art History

100 Years, 100 Artworks: A History of Modern and Contemporary Art

Agnes Berecz :: Prestel Publishers :: 1st Edition :: 2019 :: 216 Pages

A perfect selection of 100 crucial works of art, shows their importance and context in the development of the modern contemporary art era – unmissable!

Art Since 1900

Foster Hal :: Thames & Hudson :: 3rd Edition :: 2016 :: 896 Pages

Arguably the most complete, coherent and valuable book on modern art and contemporary art available today.

Modern Art. A History from Impressionism to Today

Hans Werner Holzwarth (ed.) :: Taschen :: 1st Edition :: 2016 :: 696 Pages

Staggering in its completeness, Holzwarth’s modern art and contemporary art classic seems to include every single major and minor artist of significance, with brilliantly concise and informative essays and a beautifully reproduced artwork for each.

20 Important Artists and Their Art Movements

There are literally thousands and thousands of major and minor famous artists who have made a real contribution to history of art & art movements, and there is no way to represent the tiniest fraction of even the most important of them. 

So I have decided instead to present twenty major famous artists from various art movements, selected somewhat arbitrarily by me, and recommend my favorite art history books for each of them.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)

Leonardo. The Complete Paintings and Drawings

Frank Zöllner :: Taschen :: Anniversary Edition :: 2019 :: 704 Pages

Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564)

The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti

John Addington Symonds :: Franklin Classics :: Hardcover Reprint Edition :: 2018 :: 512 Pages

Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669)

Rembrandt’s Paintings Revisited

Ernst van de Wetering :: Springer Publishing :: 1st Edition :: 2017 :: 700 Pages

Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)

Goya: Order & Disorder

Stephanie Stepanek & Frederick Ilchman :: MFA Publications :: 1st Edition :: 2014 :: 400 Pages

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)

Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist: Art, Politics, and the French Revolution

Warren Roberts :: University of North Carolina Press :: Reprint Edition :: 1992 :: 324 Pages

Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863)

Delacroix: New and Expanded Edition

Barthélémy Jobert :: Princeton University Press :: New Expanded Edition :: 2018 :: 352 Pages

Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature

Ortrud Westheider & Michael Philipp :: Prestel Publishing :: 1st Edition :: 2019 :: 280 Pages

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

Mary Cassatt: An American Impressionist in Paris

Flavie Durand-Ruel Mouraux & Nancy Mowll Mathews :: Mercatorfonds :: 1st Edition :: 2018 :: 176 Pages

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

Van Gogh: The Life

Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith :: Random House :: Illustrated Edition :: 2012 :: 976 Pages

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)

Gustav Klimt: Art Nouveau Visionary

Eva di Stefano :: Sterling :: Illustrated Edition :: 2008 :: 240 Pages

George Seurat (1859-1891)

Georges Seurat: The Art of Vision

Michelle Foa :: Yale University Press :: 1st Edition :: 2015 :: 235 Pages

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Vasily Kandinsky

Helmut Friedel and Annegret Hoberg :: Prestel Publishing :: Illustrated Edition :: 2016 :: 320 Pages

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective

Jane Fluegel & William Rubin :: The Museum of Modern Art :: 1st Edition :: 1980 :: 463 Pages

Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Marc Chagall: My Life

Marc Chagall & Elisabeth Abbott :: Da Capo Press :: 1st Edition :: 1994 :: 190 Pages

Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986)

Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life Well Lived

Malcolm Varon & Barbara Buhler Lynes :: University of New Mexico Press :: 1st Edition :: 2020

Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

Mark Rothko: Toward Clarity

Sabine Haag & Jasper Sharp :: Other Distribution :: Illustrated Edition :: 2019 :: 184 Pages

Salvador Dali (1904-1989)

Salvador Dalí: Master of Modern Art

Julian Beecroft :: Flame Tree :: New Illustrated Edition :: 2018 :: 192 Pages

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

Claire Wilcox :: Victoria & Albert Museum :: 1st Edition :: 2018 :: 256 Pages

Francis Bacon (1909-1992)

Francis Bacon: Revelations

Mark Stevens :: Knopf :: 1st Edition :: 2021 :: 880 Pages

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)


Blake Gopnik :: Ecco Publishing :: Illustrated Edition :: 2020 :: 976 Pages

Thanks so much for reading my latest article – Art History Books: A Comprehensive Bibliography of the Best Books to Have and Read. I hope it will help you find the best art history books and put together a beautiful and useful basic art library. 

Please feel free to visit my blog – Art Side of Life – for other buyer’s guides, online courses, articles and lots of other resources.

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