Art History Books: The Most Comprehensive Bibliography

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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.

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Why is it Important to Study Art History?

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 art history, 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 of how this was done, and respect and appreciation towards those great artists who paved the way, well, 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…

What Art History Books are the Best to Have and Read?

So, since I have focused so much in the past on the self-taught artist, I thought it would be nice to offer a really complete and thorough list of the best art history books I know –sixty-two of them, to be exact – so that you can better understand and love the 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, it will help you know, understand and appreciate yourself better.

And 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 if you 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 Art History Books
  • Important Art Movement
  • Important Artists

I would definitely make sure to get and really go through at least one good general art history book, 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

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The Most Comprehensive Art History Book

The Grove Dictionary of Art

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

Most Comprehensive

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

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 from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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, a book of stunning scholarly brilliance and importance, and perhaps the most readable and enjoyable complete art history.

Most recent art history book

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

Art History (Volume 1 and Volume 2)

Widely considered to be the finest and most comprehensive art history book, including important art from many cultures around the globe, this magnificent two volume set is known for its warm and welcoming writing style.

Most Comprehensive

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

Most Comprehensive

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

The 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. A true classic!

narrative history of art

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

The Visual Arts: A History

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.

history of visual arts

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

The Most Used Art History Textbook

Gardner’s Art through the Ages

Probably the most used textbook for art history for almost a century now, Gardiner’s 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.

art history textbook

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

The Short Story of Art

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.

short history of art

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

Gateways to Art

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

popular art history textbook

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

Delightfully Funny and Informative Art History Book

ArtCurious: Stories of the Unexpected, Slightly Odd, and Strangely Wonderful in Art History

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

quirky book of art history

Jennifer Dasal :: Penguin Books :: 1st Edition :: 2020 :: 288 Pages

Art History for Young and Old – 4 Fun and Accessible Books

Art: The Definitive Visual Guide

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.

visual guide to art

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

Art: A Visual History

Not as deep or thorough as many of the full histories above, Cumming’s work is still quite useful, very easy to read and a beautiful volume overall

visual art history

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

Artists: Their Lives and Work

A brilliantly conceived book about the most important artists and their place in art history, told through images and brief snippets of text. Perfect for kids, beginners and as a quick reference.

most important artists

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

Art that Changed the World

Teaching art history by focusing on specific movements and their most important artists and works, this imminently browsable book uses short paragraphs and thousands of illustrations, and gives a great overview – if not a deep or insightful treatment. Great for young adults!

art movements

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

Art History as Told by the World’s Great 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 study books and wonderful gifts.

The Louvre: All the Paintings

louvre

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

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings

MOMA

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

The Hermitage: 250 Masterpieces

hermitage

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

Also recommended:

Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes, 1250-1743

The National Gallery: Masterpieces of Painting

Vatican: All the Paintings

Masterpieces of Painting: J. Paul Getty Museum

Art of Other 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 artists, schools, styles and movements, so I thought it would be good to include at least a few art history books covering different cultures and peoples.

Asian Art

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

art of asia

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

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

One of the great classics in art history scholarship, and yet as unappreciated, even unknown, as Indian art in general is to the western world, 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.

art of india

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

History of Art in Africa

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 of art history.

art of the africa

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

Islamic Art

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.

art of the islam

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

Other recommendations:

Oceanic Art

Aboriginal Art

Prehistoric Art

Images of the Ice Age

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.

Art of the Ice age

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

Ancient and Classical Art

The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Art and Architecture

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

Ancient Greek & Roman art

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

The Art of Ancient Egypt

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.

Ancient Egypt

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

Medieval Art

Experiencing Medieval Art (Rethinking the Middle Ages)

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

Medieval art

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

The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture

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

Medieval art

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

Renaissance & Mannerist Art

History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture

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.

Renaissance

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

The Grove Encyclopedia of Northern Renaissance Art

A staggeringly complete and deep survey of the Renaissance in Northern Europe, this Grove set is another indispensable reference work.

Renaissance

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

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

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

Renaissance

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

Baroque and Rococo Art

Baroque and Rococo Art and Architecture

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

Baroque & Rococo

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

Neoclassical Art

Historical Dictionary of Neoclassical Art and Architecture

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

neoclassicism

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

Romantic Art

Romantic Art World

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

romanticism

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

Historical Dictionary of Romantic Art and Architecture

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, movements and philosophies of this crucial period.

Romanticism

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

Impressionism

Impressionism: Reimagining Art

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.

impressionism

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

The Impressionists: Their Lives And Works In 350 Images

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

Impressionism

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

Modern and Contemporary Art

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

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

100 crucial works

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

Art Since 1900

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

1900s

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

Modern Art. A History from Impressionism to Today

Staggering in its completeness, Holzwarth’s modern 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.

modernism

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

Important Artists – 20 Great Visionaries and Their Visions

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

So I have decided instead to present twenty major artists, selected somewhat arbitrarily by me, and recommend my favorite book for each of them.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)

20 art visionaries

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

Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564)

20 art visionaries

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

Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669)

20 art visionaries

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

Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)

20 art visionaries

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

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)

20 art visionaries

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

Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863)

20 art visionaries

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

Claude Monet (1840-1926)

20 art visionaries

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

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

20 art visionaries

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

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

20 art visionaries

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

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)

20 art visionaries

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

George Seurat (1859-1891)

20 art visionaries

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

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

20 art visionaries

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

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

20 art visionaries

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

Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

20 art visionaries

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

Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986)

20 art visionaries

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

Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

20 art visionaries

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

Salvador Dali (1904-1989)

20 art visionaries

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

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

20 art visionaries

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

Francis Bacon (1909-1992)

20 art visionaries

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

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

20 Art visionaries

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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