Since I have focused so much in the past on being a 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 – 62 of them, to be exact – 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 Books?
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 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 are the Best Art History Books to Have and Read?
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 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 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
One of the most acclaimed art historians, Jane Turner, created the most comprehensive and important English language reference art book on 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!
General Art History Books – From Caves to Computers
Art History Classics: 7 Time Honored Complete Histories of (Mostly) Western Art
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.
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, created by Marilyn Stokstad & Michael Cothren, brilliant art historians.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
Delightfully Funny and Informative Art History Book
Jennifer Dasal :: Penguin Books :: 1st Edition :: 2020 :: 288 Pages
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.
Art History for Young and Old – Four Fun and Accessible Books
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.
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 a beautiful volume overall
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. Perfect for kids, beginners and as a quick reference.
Teaching art history by focusing on specific movements and their most important artists and works, this imminently browsable art 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 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 art books and wonderful gifts.
Thomas Campbell & Kathryn Calley Galitz :: Skira Rizzoli Electa :: 1st Edition :: 2016 :: 544 Pages
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.
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.
Vidya Dehejia :: Phaidon Press :: 1st Edition :: 1997 :: 448 Pages
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 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.
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.
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.
Fascinating images of native North American art!
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
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.
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.
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.
Colum Hourihane (ed.) :: Oxford University Press :: Illustrated Edition :: 2012 :: 4,048 Pages (6 Volumes)
This six volume set is the absolute reference, and indispensible to any serious student of medieval art and history.
Renaissance & Mannerist Art
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.
Gordon Campbell (ed.) :: Oxford University Press :: Illustrated Edition :: 2009 :: 2,328 Pages (4 Volumes)
A staggeringly complete and deep survey of the Renaissance in Northern Europe, this Grove set is another indispensable reference work.
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
Considered the most authoritative single volume history of the Baroque and Rococo eras in both 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.
A highly respected volume on one of the most important, and least written about, periods in art history.
Allison Lee Palmer :: Scarecrow Press :: 1st Edition :: 2011 :: 304 Pages
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.
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.
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 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!
Arguably the most complete, coherent and valuable book on modern art and contemporary art available today.
Staggering in its completeness, Holzwarth’s modern 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.
Important Artists – 20 Great Visionaries and Their Visions
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)
Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564)
Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669)
Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)
Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)
Warren Roberts :: University of North Carolina Press :: Reprint Edition :: 1992 :: 324 Pages
Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863)
Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)
George Seurat (1859-1891)
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986)
Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Salvador Dali (1904-1989)
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
Francis Bacon (1909-1992)
Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
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.