Art history can be intimidating. Seemingly composed of countless movements, mediums, artists, and styles, diving into the study may seem daunting. However, with the right book collection, you’ll realize that an understanding of art history is not only possible, but surprisingly attainable. After all, as Ralph Waldo Emerson famously claimed, “every artist was first an amateur.”
So, whether you’re considering a career in arts management, an artist looking to learn more about the story of your practice, or simply curious about art’s evolution, these must-have books for budding art historians belong on your shelf!
Here’s 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 American art historian and educator Helen Gardner, the textbook offers a comprehensive and chronological look at art’s history, beginning 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
Featuring text compiled by curators, critics, artists, and academics accompanied by full-page pictures, Phaidon’s iconic Art Book is “a valuable work of reference as well as a feast for the eyes.” This glossy anthology follows an alphabetical format, offering readers an A-Z guide of 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 Cave Art to Pop Art
The Collins Big Book of Art is a fantastic introduction to the world of art for those with limited-to-no knowledge of the subject. It spans the history of art from cave paintings to the Renaissance, to Impressionism and Pop Art. Comprising more than 1,200 works of art from around the world, each piece is labelled with the date, country, title, artist, materials, size, and current location.
50 Artists You Should Know
Th 50 Artists You Should Know book profiles 50 famous artists throughout history and from various artistic movements. Arranged chronologically, readers can learn about the evolution of visual art, starting with the Gothic period. There’s also a glossary of important art terms, so you can impress your friends at your next dinner party!
The Story of Art
The Story of Art by Professor E.H. Gombrich has been one of the bestselling books in the field for over 40 years. Written for “newcomers to art,” this accessible, easy-to-read text features everything you need to grasp a general understanding of art history’s timeline.
Since its publication in 1950, The Story of Art has been enhanced with captions, charts, and an index—though Gombrich’s words have been widely untouched.
Ways of Seeing
In 1972, art critic and artist John Berger wrote Ways of Seeing, a book adapted from his BBC television series of the same name. The avant-garde book comprises seven essays (three of which are made up only of images) that explore the mysterious “relation between what we see and what we know.”
Distributed by Penguin Books, Ways of Seeing has been deemed a “Modern Classic” by the publishing house.