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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.
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…
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:
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!
Jane Turner (ed.) :: Oxford University Press :: Revised Edition :: 2003 :: 2,600 Pages (34 Volumes)
Metropolitan Museum of Art :: Phaidon Press :: 1st Edition :: 2020 :: 448 Pages
Marilyn Stokstad & Michael Cothren :: Pearson Publishing :: 6th Edition :: 2017 :: 656 pages
Marilyn Stokstad & Michael Cothren :: Pearson Publishing :: 6th Edition :: 2017 :: 668 pages
Hugh Honour & John Fleming :: Laurence King Publishing :: 7th Edition :: 2013 :: 996 Pages
Helen Gardner & Fred Kleiner :: Cengage Learning :: 16th Edition :: 2019 :: 1264 Pages
Jennifer Dasal :: Penguin Books :: 1st Edition :: 2020 :: 288 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.
Andrew Graham Dixon :: DK Publishing :: 1st Edition :: 2018 :: 612 Pages
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
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!
Vincent Pomarède :: Black Dog & Leventhal :: 1st Edition :: 2011 :: 784 Pages
Thomas Campbell & Kathryn Calley Galitz :: Skira Rizzoli Electa :: 1st Edition :: 2016 :: 544 Pages
Mikhail Piotrovsky :: Skira Rizzoli Electa :: 1st Edition :: 2014 :: 288 Pages
Dorinda Neave, Lara Blanchard & Marika Sardar :: Pearson Publishers :: 1st Edition :: 2014 :: 432 Pages
Vidya Dehejia :: Phaidon Press :: 1st Edition :: 1997 :: 448 Pages
Monica Blackmun Visona, Robin Poynor & Herbert Cole :: Prentice Hall :: 2nd Edition :: 2007 :: 560 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.
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.
The most valuable book of ancient and classical art, by the scholars who know it best, this Oxford Handbook still sets the standard.
Clemente Marconi (ed.) :: Oxford University Press :: 1st Edition :: 2018 :: 728 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.
An affordable paperback edition of the great recent classic which has revolutionized how we think about medieval art and the middle ages in general.
Herbert Kessler :: University of Toronto Press :: 1st Paperback Edition :: 2019
This six volume set is the absolute reference, and indispensible to any serious student of medieval art and history.
Colum Hourihane (ed.) :: Oxford University Press :: Illustrated Edition :: 2012 :: 4,048 Pages (6 Volumes)
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.
Frederick Hartt :: Harry N Abrams :: 4th Edition :: 1994 :: 696 Pages
A staggeringly complete and deep survey of the Renaissance in Northern Europe, this Grove set is another indispensable reference work.
Gordon Campbell (ed.) :: Oxford University Press :: Illustrated Edition :: 2009 :: 2,328 Pages (4 Volumes)
A clear and accessible study of the extraordinary developments in art after the death of Raphael.
Linda Murray :: Thames and Hudson :: Reprint Edition :: 1985 :: 287 Pages
Considered the most authoritative single volume history of the Baroque and Rococo eras in both art and architecture.
Robert Neuman :: Pearson Publishing :: 1st Edition :: 2012 :: 480 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.
Allison Lee Palmer :: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers :: 2nd Edition :: 2020 :: 412 Pages
A highly respected volume on one of the most important, and least written about, periods in art history.
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.
Allison Lee Palmer :: Scarecrow Press :: 1st Edition :: 2011 :: 304 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.
Norbert Wolf :: Prestel Publishers :: 1st Edition :: 2015 :: 272 Pages
A gloriously beautiful book, with interesting and helpful descriptions of the most important artists and artworks of the Impressionist era.
Robert Katz & Celestine Dars :: Lorenz Books :: 1st Edition :: 2016 :: 256 Pages
A perfect selection of 100 crucial works, which shows their importance and their context in the development of the modern era – unmissable!
Agnes Berecz :: Prestel Publishers :: 1st Edition :: 2019 :: 216 Pages
Arguably the most complete, coherent and valuable book on modern and contemporary art available 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.
Hans Werner Holzwarth (ed.) :: Taschen :: 1st Edition :: 2016 :: 696 Pages
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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.
Frank Zöllner :: Taschen :: Anniversary Edition :: 2019 :: 704 Pages
John Addington Symonds :: Franklin Classics :: Hardcover Reprint Edition :: 2018 :: 512 Pages
Ernst van de Wetering :: Springer Publishing :: 1st Edition :: 2017 :: 700 Pages
Stephanie Stepanek & Frederick Ilchman :: MFA Publications :: 1st Edition :: 2014 :: 400 Pages
Warren Roberts :: University of North Carolina Press :: Reprint Edition :: 1992 :: 324 Pages
Barthélémy Jobert :: Princeton University Press :: New Expanded Edition :: 2018 :: 352 Pages
Ortrud Westheider & Michael Philipp :: Prestel Publishing :: 1st Edition :: 2019 :: 280 Pages
Flavie Durand-Ruel Mouraux & Nancy Mowll Mathews :: Mercatorfonds :: 1st Edition :: 2018 :: 176 Pages
Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith :: Random House :: Illustrated Edition :: 2012 :: 976 Pages
Eva di Stefano :: Sterling :: Illustrated Edition :: 2008 :: 240 Pages
Michelle Foa :: Yale University Press :: 1st Edition :: 2015 :: 235 Pages
Helmut Friedel and Annegret Hoberg :: Prestel Publishing :: Illustrated Edition :: 2016 :: 320 Pages
Jane Fluegel & William Rubin :: The Museum of Modern Art :: 1st Edition :: 1980 :: 463 Pages
Marc Chagall & Elisabeth Abbott :: Da Capo Press :: 1st Edition :: 1994 :: 190 Pages
Malcolm Varon & Barbara Buhler Lynes :: University of New Mexico Press :: 1st Edition :: 2020
Sabine Haag & Jasper Sharp :: Other Distribution :: Illustrated Edition :: 2019 :: 184 Pages
Julian Beecroft :: Flame Tree :: New Illustrated Edition :: 2018 :: 192 Pages
Claire Wilcox :: Victoria & Albert Museum :: 1st Edition :: 2018 :: 256 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.