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10 Essential Art History Books for Beginners

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 lives and work of Italian Renaissance artists, from Giotto and Brunelleschi to Leonardo, 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 art of the last 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!

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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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