The Definitive List of Must-Read Art History Books

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We have expressed ourselves using art from the beginning of human civilization. 

Cave art has been found that dates back 40,000 years.  Experts believe it has a range of meanings, including some sort of religious purpose.  It also was a means of personal expression, with some old folks spending time around the fire talking about what it all means. 

The history of art spans a long period of time.  Art history is as much about the people of an era as the art itself.  Just ask a parent who puts a picture their child drew on the refrigerator.  

Read All About It

My purpose here is to provide some of the best books in Art History.  

Things to look for: the author’s expertise, the specific subject matter, what others are saying about them, the skillset of the intended audience, and any deficits that might be red flags.


The Art of Pulp Horror: An Illustrated History by Stephen Jones (editor)

“Pulps” are cheaply made books and graphic novels (comics) that received a lot of disdain over the years. On the other hand, they were and still are a quite popular genre, including as an inspiration to film and television.  They often address important themes and issues of the day.

This book gives pulp art the respect it deserves and edited by an award-winning fantasy author. 

Feedback: People found this an excellent resource. The number of illustrations was a mixed bag for a few because it resulted in the photos being too small to completely enjoy.  

Art That Changed the World: Transformative Art Movements and the Paintings That Inspired Them by DK 

“DK” is a reference wing of Penguin Random House that provides a range of educational materials for the general audience, both adults and children.  This volume provides a history of art from prehistorical times to modern pop art.  

The book’s Amazon page has a colorful breakdown of what is included in this well-rounded resource for those who are art aficionados or just are interested in the subject. An art magazine praised it as a “perfect coffee table book.”

Feedback: The major limitation is that the book focuses on Western Art, which might be misleading given the title.  The feedback in general besides that is positive, even a criticism that notes it looks good with great photographs but you can find the material online (what can’t you find online these days?) shows that it very well can be a good coffee table book.   

See also: “DK” also wrote Artists: Their Lives and Works.

Art: The Whole Story by Stephen Farthing (Editor), Richard Cork (Foreword)

This is a good one-volume history.  It is written by an international team of artists, art historians, and curators, breaking down art history by period. A range of art genres, from painting to sculpture, are covered. There are also over 1100 illustrations. 

Overall, it is a well-written introduction to art history that should benefit the beginner as much as a more knowledgeable student of art.

Feedback: Readers enjoyed this book, praising the compact, well-written summaries and illustrations. If someone is interested in more detailed information, they might find this inadequate.  But, if Renaissance art is your thing, you might want a volume covering a range of other things (such as Japanese art), and that might be useful too! 

Classical Art: From Greece to Rome by Mary Beard and John Henderson

The art of Ancient Greece and Rome has been studied and written for over two thousand years.  This book, written by two classic professors and part of the Oxford History of Art book collection, is a good recent addition. 

The authors do not only talk about classic Greek and Rome art itself but also the cultural story of Ancient Rome’s usage of Greek art.  The book discusses the search for “lost art” over the centuries and the usage of scientific techniques to learn new things about old masterpieces.  

Feedback: The illustrations were one thing that stood out for many readers. Some argued that though the book had a lot of information, it was not well written, and is too academic and dense.  Might be more of a reference-type book for some readers. 


The First Artists: In Search of the World’s Oldest Art by Paul Bahn and Michel Lorblanchet 

The authors are experts in archaeology and primitive art.  Pierre Soulages, who contributes a foreword, is a French painter, engraver, and sculptor.  

The authors provide a complete look at prehistorical art, not just focusing on the usual suspects talked about (cave paintings in Europe).  The book includes 80 illustrations, twenty in color.  

Feedback: Readers praise the thoroughness and scholarship of this discussion of the topic. Some readers warn that the casual reader might find it a bit too dense. Art history books appear to be about finding that careful path between scholarship and ease of reading.  

A History of Art History by Christopher S. Wood 

Let’s have a bit of meta. This book is about art history itself, from the Middle Ages until the modern day (or as one review says “1400–1960”).  

The book skillfully summarizes and analyzes a slew of writings, episodes, and personalities from a span of over five hundred years.  It has the potential to be a basic source for a long time.  

Feedback: Readers are very impressed by this book’s scholarship and insights.  Some readers did warn that it might not scan too well for non-specialists. Others still overall praised its “clarity” and found it approachable even for those without much of a background in art history.  

The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari and Julia Conway Bondanella (translator)

Giorgio Vasari was a sixteenth-century painter, architect, engineer, writer, and historian.  He is also one of the fathers of the writing of art history.  His classic vignettes of Renaissance artists can be enjoyed here via a recent translation of his book.  

You will learn about the lives of thirty-six artists with the translation carefully annotated with information to help the reader fully understand the full context of the original. 

Feedback: Readers found this classical work still quite relevant and full of interesting details. A few found it a bit repetitive since the lives had some common themes like religion. Some thought Vasari’s analysis is simplistic.  A classic book (Oxford World Classics) for your library that few will read straight thru, but still a good volume to own.  

Native North American Art by Janet Catherine Berlo and Ruth B. Phillips

This book is a rich discussion of Native American art from before the time of Columbus until today.  Subjects covered are basketry, wood and rock carvings, dance masks, and beadwork, as well as paintings.  Art’s relationship with the sacred, politics, and society are covered. 

This book is from the Oxford History of Art series. Berlo is a professor of gender and women’s studies as well as art history. Phillips leans toward anthropology, both as a museum director and professor. She is also a professor of fine art.

Feedback: This book is well-reviewed for its “fresh readable style” as well as for being “politically aware.”  The book shows that you can write a textbook without it being dull.  One poor review only complained about the lack of page numbers in a digital version.  

What Is African Art?: A Short History by Peter Probst

This is a recently published book that has received a lot of positive reviews.  African art is often a forgotten genre.   Good news.  This is a book that reviews declare a pioneer in African art history, with good research and completeness (“colonial era through to the present”).

Probst himself provides this thumbnail resume on this professional website: “I work at the intersection of art history, anthropology, and museum studies with a particular focus on the arts of Global Africa.”

Feedback: This recent book has limited reader feedback.  Let me know if you read it!  

What the Ermine Saw: The Extraordinary Journey of Leonardo da Vinci’s Most Mysterious Portrait by Eden Collinsworth

The Woman with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci is like his more famous Mona Lisa an intriguing portrait. But, its history is even more amazing. Collingsworth tells the long and winding tale of its creation, travels over the centuries (including during Nazi Germany), up to the further lessons it can tell us with means of modern-day scientific techniques.  

I personally found this book both well-written and rather fascinating. Should be able to be enjoyed by both art historians and the average person curious about a fascinating story.

Feedback: Readers found this very enjoyable. My one caveat would be that the author is not an expert in art or history, so comes from this as an amateur. But, the book is a professional effort and top reviews praised the quality of her work here.  

Bonus: Art History For Dummies Jesse Bryant Wilder  

The author is no “dummy.” He’s written several art textbooks and is an art critic.  

So, check out this recent addition to the somewhat crudely labeled series for beginners who want to learn about a range of subjects.  The style of these books is to use a light touch (with a bit of snark) while providing a detailed summary of the material. This book fits right in.