10 Essential Art History Books for Beginners

Best Art History Books for Beginners Intro to Art History Introduction to Art History

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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! Among this collection of the best art history books for beginners, you will find anthologies of famous paintings, sculptures, and other artwork, as well as texts covering architecture, art movements, and beyond.

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. It covers the work of iconic figures like Vincent van Gogh, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Jackson Pollock, and more.

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

Best Art History Books for Beginners

Phaidon | $59.95

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 to Pop Art. Comprising more than 1,200 works of art from around the world, each piece is labeled with the date, country, title, artist, materials, size, and current location. All of the beautiful illustrations are carefully selected to give you a thorough overview.


50 Artists You Should Know

Art History Books

Prestel | $19.95

The 50 Artists You Should Know book provides insight into 50 famous artists throughout history and from various artistic movements, including female artists who are often overlooked. 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

Best Art History Books for Beginners

Phaidon | $46.45

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.


The Lives of the Artists

Italian painter, architect, historian, and writer Giorgio Vasari is predominantly known for two reasons: he coined the term Renaissance, and wrote The Lives of the Artists. Believed by many to be “the first important book on art history,” this text presents an intimate and contemporaneous look at the lifetimes and works of Italian Renaissance artists, from Giotto and Brunelleschi to Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael.

This edition is annotated, making it perfect for those interested in learning more about this iconic art movement.


Styles, Schools and Movements: The Essential Encyclopaedic Guide to Modern Art 

Amy Dempsey‘s Styles, Schools and Movements: The Essential Encyclopaedic Guide to Modern Art is intended to familiarize readers with “one of the most dynamic and exciting periods in art history.” Beginning with Impressionism and concluding with contemporary art, this compilation of essays highlights the most important work over the last 150 years.

Plus, each main essay is supplemented with suggestions for further reading, putting you on the path to art history success. 


The Duchamp Dictionary 

Marcel Duchamp is celebrated as one of the major figures of modern art. Given his profound influence, understanding his practice is key to grasping the art of the 20th century. With The Duchamp Dictionary by Thomas Girst, breaking down the artist's avant-garde ideas is easy, as it features 59 photos and “short, alphabetical dictionary entries that introduce his legacy in a clear and engaging way.”

Packed with information yet playfully formatted, this reference book is great for seasoned art historians and novices alike.


Show Time: The 50 Most Influential Exhibitions of Contemporary Art 

Published in 2014, Show Time: The 50 Most Influential Exhibitions of Contemporary Art is one of art history's more modern must-reads. Curator and Director and Head of Exhibitions and Public Programs at The Jewish Museum Jens Hoffmann has selected a list of shows 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 exhibitions in an engaging and easy-to-follow way.


Now, check out our list of books for artists!


This article has been edited and updated.

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Kelly Richman-Abdou

Kelly Richman-Abdou is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. An art historian living in Paris, Kelly was born and raised in San Francisco and holds a BA in Art History from the University of San Francisco and an MA in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. When she’s not writing, you can find Kelly wandering around Paris, whether she’s leading a tour (as a guide, she has been interviewed by BBC World News America and France 24) or simply taking a stroll with her husband and two tiny daughters.
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