Art history can be intimidating. Seemingly made up of countless movements, mediums, artists and styles, diving into the study can seem daunting. However, with the right collection of books, you will find that an understanding of art history is not only possible, but surprisingly achievable. After all, as Ralph Waldo Emerson asserted, “every artist was an amateur first”.
So whether you’re considering a career in arts management, whether you’re an artist seeking to learn more about the history of your practice, or simply curious about the evolution of art, these essential books for historians of budding art belong on your shelf!
Here is a selection of the best art history books for beginners.
Gardner’s art through the ages
Gardner’s art through the ages has been the go-to source for aspiring art historians since 1926. Written by an American art historian and educator Helen Gardnerthe manual offers a comprehensive and chronological look at the history of art, starting with “The Birth of Art” and ending with contemporary work.
There are currently 15 editions of this book as well as several modified adaptations, including “Concise” and “Enhanced” versions. For a general introduction to art history, however, we recommend “A Global History”.
The art book
With text compiled by curators, critics, artists and scholars accompanied by full-page images, Phaidon’s iconic art book is “an invaluable reference work as well as a feast for the eyes.” This glossy anthology follows an alphabetical format, providing readers with an A-Z guide to art history’s most prolific artists spanning periods, schools, and styles.
Colorful and compact (it measures less than 7 inches by 5 inches), you can’t go wrong with this classic book.
The Collins Big Book of Art: from rock art to pop art
Collins’ Big Book of Art is a fantastic introduction to the art world for those with little or no knowledge of the subject. It covers the history of art, from cave paintings to the Renaissance, from Impressionism to Pop Art. Comprising over 1,200 works of art from around the world, each piece is labeled with the date, country, title, artist, materials, size and current location.
50 artists you should know
E 50 artists you should know book features 50 famous artists throughout history from various art movements. Arranged chronologically, readers can learn about the evolution of visual art, beginning with the Gothic period. There’s also a glossary of important artistic terms, so you can impress your friends at your next dinner party!
art history by the teacher EH Gombrich has been one of the best-selling books in the field for over 40 years. Written for ‘newcomers to the art world’, this accessible, easy-to-read text contains everything you need to grasp a general understanding of the timeline of art history.
Since its publication in 1950, art history was enriched with captions, charts and an index, although Gombrich’s words were largely intact.
Ways to see
In 1972, art critic and artist John Berger wrote Ways to see, a book adapted from his BBC television series of the same name. The groundbreaking book includes seven essays (three of which consist of images only) that explore the mysterious “relationship between what we see and what we know”.
Distributed by Penguin Books, Ways to see has been called a “Modern Classic” by the publishing house.
The life of artists
Italian painter, architect, historian and writer Giorgio Vasari is mainly known for two reasons: he coined the term Renaissanceand wrote The life of artists. Considered by many to be “the first important book on the history of art”, this text presents an intimate and contemporary look at the life and work of Italian Renaissance artists, from Giotto and Brunelleschi to Leonardo, Michel- Angel and Raphael.
This edition is annotated, making it perfect for those wishing to learn more about this iconic art movement.
Styles, schools and movements: the essential encyclopedic guide to modern art
Amy Dempseyit’s Styles, schools and movements: the essential encyclopedic guide to modern art aims to acquaint readers with “one of the most dynamic and exciting periods in the history of art”. Beginning with Impressionism and ending with contemporary art, this compilation of essays spotlights the most important work of the past 150 years.
PPlus, each main essay is supplemented with suggested further reading, setting you on the path to success in art history.
The Duchamp Dictionary
Marcel Duchamp is celebrated as one of the major figures of modern art. Given his profound influence, understanding his practice is essential to grasping the art of the last century. With The Duchamp Dictionary by Thomas Girtit’s easy to break down the artist’s avant-garde ideas, as it features 59 photos and “short alphabetical dictionary entries that showcase his legacy in a clear and engaging way”.
Filled with information but formatted in a fun way, this reference book is ideal for seasoned art historians and novices alike.
Show Time: The 50 Most Influential Contemporary Art Exhibitions
Published in 2014, Show Time: The 50 Most Influential Contemporary Art Exhibitions is one of the most modern must-reads in art history. Curator and Director and Head of Exhibitions and Public Programs at the Jewish Museum Jens Hoffmann selected a list of exhibitions that have “triggered profound changes in curatorial practice and reanimated the potential of contemporary art” since 1990.
Divided into 9 sections and featuring installation photos and floor plans, Show time presents these ground-breaking exhibits in an engaging and easy-to-follow way.
This article has been edited and updated.
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