Best Art History Books for beginners

What to read to feed your art history appetite

While general history seems to repeat itself all the time, the course of art evolution is a whole ‘nother story.

Not that I’m saying that no one ever tried to imitate the successful inventions of their predecessors — artists are no different to any one of us here.

It’s that the repetition in art doesn’t make it into history.

That’s why, perhaps, some best art history books don’t get outdated and never lose their value in the eyes of art-loving readers.

We can always keep up with the time and sate our thirst for art with some new dedicated apps, like Smart Art — Art History Escape, that not only gives you a bite-size dose of art history knowledge with its witty daily stories but also keeps you in the loop of what’s happening in the art world today.

So, whether you are a scholar or [an aspiring] professional in the field, or would like to fill that gap in your knowledge or simply unwind after work, I hope you will find something for your liking in this short [sometimes unconventional] list I curated for you.

The Essentials

1. Not a single list of best art books would be issued without an honourable mention of this door stopper folio by the Austrian-English celebrated art historian Ernst Gombrich (1909–2001). And it is there for a reason.

The Story of Art was first published in 1950 and has become the most popular introduction to the history of visual arts ever since. Unlike many other texts written by scholars, it is a really accessible and even entertaining reading.

“There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.”

See? These are just the first two sentences and you are already caught, aren’t you? The book was intended for younger audiences and that’s what, perhaps, made it so popular among all ages of art lovers with millions of copies sold worldwide.

Highly recommend trying it if you haven’t yet. It was translated into 30 languages so that should be a special pleasure to devour it in your native one.

2. And, if you are serious about your art research, I would also highly suggest you get these Dictionaries of Artists like the famous Benezit.

It’s a ground zero resource for artists’ biographies.

It includes 149,000 of them as well as auction records, exhibition histories, and over 11,000 images of artists’ signatures and stamps of sale.

First compiled by the French art collector and historian Charles Emmanuel Bénézit (1854–1920), its first three volumes saw the light between 1911 and 1923. It has been constantly evolving ever since and is now composed of 14 volumes, with more than 20,000 pages, with over 170,000 entries [told you, that’s serious].

While some passionate art lovers are chasing these hard-copy editions for their shelves [red one for the French language, and blue one for the English], this extensive database is now also fully accessible via Oxford Art Online.

My own copy of Lemoine-Bouchard

There are other good dictionaries, like the German Thieme-Becker, or some more niche ones, like Lemoine-Bouchard for those who are in love with portrait miniatures, for example.

The Author’s flair

This is my favourite part.

There is always an individual voice behind every text. And as a reader, I would love to hear it.

Would you agree? If so, I suggest you read some more subjective monographs by art historians, which do not pretend to present the universal view on this or that matter.

  1. Another over-featured book here is the famosissimo The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects [or simply The Lives] by Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574).

You’ve probably heard of his name numerous times though not everyone actually read anything written in the 16th century.

Actually, it’s a rather entertaining reading [though sometimes it’s hard to follow the author’s thought, I won’t lie], which gives a unique insight into the perception of Renaissance art and its artists by the mind of their contemporary.

Give it a try if you haven’t yet to get that sense of travel back in time [the book’s not thick at all, so no extra effort to fit it into your holiday bag required].

2. My second suggestion is on the edge of art history and history per se. These are the books by the French historian Pierre Chaunu (1923–2009). He was a very prolific writer and I especially recommend his book on the 17th- and 18th-century society in Europe, its development and evolution in all spheres [arts including].

Try to find these two — The Civilisation of Classical Europe [La Civilisation de l’Europe Classique] and Civilisation of European Enlightenment [La Civilisation de l’Europe des Lumières] — in English, French or your native language, to dig deeper in some of the most groundbreaking periods in human history.

Fresh Editorials

And, finally, if you’d like to read some fresh book-quality research in the art field, The Burlington Magazine is the monthly edition I couldn’t recommend more, hard copy or online version.

I wrote about it in more detail in my blog Best Apps and Websites for Art Lovers — another useful read for you to find out about something new.

May your reading bring you lots of pleasure and discoveries!

Smart Art — Art History Escape app

My name is Marina Viatkina and I am an art collector, researcher and art advisor. You may read my other art-related articles, watch videos or reach out to discuss this blog and address your art enquiries here or on my website marinaviatkina.com.

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Marina Viatkina

Marina Viatkina

Art | History Writer & Collecting Advisor → marinaviatkina.com | Founder of Smart Art — Art History Escape app → getsmartart.com