Top 13 | Best art history books for beginners

With countless movements, styles, artists and mediums, art history can seem overwhelming. I know Google can answer pretty much any question but there’s still something so beautiful about lifting an art book off your shelf. Whether you’re an artist after inspiration, a budding art historian or simply curious, here are the best art history books for beginners. I’ve included the books which I always come back to, as well as those I keep on my coffee table.

1. The Art Book  

This is where it all started for me, and I still go back to this brilliant little book. It’s an A to Z guide of 500 great painters and sculptors from medieval to modern times. My very battered copy shows that its one of my most loved art books.

Buy here. 

2. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art

Considered the Bible of Western art history, this is required reading for anyone starting out. Jargon-free, it’s an accessible introduction to the names and movements you’ve probably heard of but can’t carry a decent conversation about yet. It’s a classic on my bookshelf.

Buy here. 

3. John Berger, Ways of Seeing

This is one of my favourite (and most influential) art history books of all time. Writing in an engaging and witty manner, John Berger concentrates on how we look at art. What do we see? How are we seen? Might we see differently? He asks searching questions about how images – from European oil painting to photography and advertising – inform everyday life. Introducing the concept of ‘the male gaze’ and the objectification of women, it’s more relevant than ever today.

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4. B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art

At university, this was the one book which I used weekly. It’s filled with letters, manifestoes, reviews, interviews, and other texts related to modern art. My copy is filled with highlighted passages, including letters by Van Gogh, Gauguin’s theories on Symbolism and Surrealist manifestoes.

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5. Isms: Understanding Art

Beautifully illustrated, I recommend this book as an excellent starter for art students. Follow time lines, art movements, and summaries of the major players in western European art history. It’s also colour coded – yes! Great for anyone taking GCSE or A Level Art. I still have my copy and refer to it when art history continues to confuse me.

Buy here. 

6. Simon Schama, The Power of Art

You either love Schama or you hate him. Given my inclusion of him here, it’s pretty clear where I stand. In this book, he takes you under the canvas of 10 masters from Caravaggio to Rothko. Expect sexy art dramas, adultery and murder intrigue. One for the coffee table, which you can dip in and out of.

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7. Eric Fernie (ed.), Art History and Its Methods

This book is one of the best introductions to the theories which can be applied to art history: feminism, formalism, semiotics and more. I bought a copy before I started my Masters and it saved me during a good number of seminars. Eric Fernie brings together 27 art historians’ essays, accompanied by a commentary that places them in context and discusses the issues they raise. A glossary of terms and a select bibliography make this book an invaluable resource for any art history student. Especially good for postgraduate study.

Buy here. 

best books on art history for beginners
I loved Grayson Perry’s ‘Playing to the Gallery’. An inside account of the contemporary art world, he shows who holds the power (curators).

8. Grayson Perry, Playing to the Gallery

Who decides what art is worth? Curators? Dealers? Museums? In this brilliant book famous and award-winning artist Grayson Perry takes a look inside the art establishment. He takes questions which you might be embarrassed to ask, such as ‘Is this really art’ and answers them with wit and insight.

In his book ‘Orientalism’, Edward Said discusses the orientalist fantasy painted in works such as Gérôme’s ‘The Snake Charmer’ (Wiki Comms)

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9. Edward Said, Orientalism

How do cultural appropriation and art history intersect? If you’re interested in this relevant topic, then you need this post-colonial classic in your life. Edward W. Said discusses Orientalism, defined as the West’s patronizing representations of and attitudes towards “The East” (Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East) through specific artworks, literature and history. It’s beautifully argued, persuasive and conclusive.

Kathleen Gilje, ‘Linda Nochlin in Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere’, 2005, oil on linen

10. Linda Nochlin, Women, Art and Power

Linda Nochlin is famous for addressing “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in 1970, and in the process launching feminist art history. This collection of 7 essays on women artists brings together 20 years of her scholarship. She looks at the relationships between women, art and power from the 18th century until the 20th. It’s the best starting point for feminism in art history.

Buy here. 

Auguste Renoir, ‘Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette’, 1876

11. Sue Rowe, The Private Lives of the Impressionists

Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. In this really enjoyable book Sue Rowe takes you back to the incredible period in art history, in Paris, when Impressionism was launched. You learn about the painters, their lives, loves, money problems, and their dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, whose faith in this small group was—eventually—realised. The perfect gift for an art lover. I read it over the Christmas holidays last year.

Buy here. 

12. Taschen, Sculpture. From Antiquity to the Present Day

This is a magnificent coffee table book. It’s informative, academically detailed, and includes illustrations on every page. From devotional and spiritual iconography to 20th-century abstraction, it evokes the power of sculptural practice across art history.

Buy here. 

13. Will Gompertz, What Are You Looking At?. 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye. 

This was my most recent art book buy, recommended by an artist friend, and I love it! From Monet’s waterlilies to Damien Hirst’s stuffed shark, Will Gompertz explores basic questions about modern art that most of us are too scared to ask. Easy to read and very funny whilst being insightful. Your next gallery trip will seem a lot less intimidating.

Buy here. 

Looking for books on art collecting instead? Or perhaps an art-related novel? Then head over to my resources page, filled with ideas, here. 

Ruth x 

P.S. What art books do you have on your shelf at home? Let me know so I can add to my wish list too!

2 thoughts on “Top 13 | Best art history books for beginners

  1. Hi Ruth,

    Great little list there: several classics and a few unexpected ones to add to the collection.

    Some extras that I would consider:
    – John Fleming & Hugh Honour’s ‘A World History of Art’: another excellent coffee table book, you’ll struggle to find anything more comprehensive in one volume, and the revised editions are brilliantly illustrated
    – Michael Baxandall’s ‘Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy’: a little more specified towards the Italian Renaissance, but the infamous and influential “period eye” methodology was first introduced here, and Baxandall’s writing is academic and informative to the highest level
    – Marcia Pointon’s ‘History of Art’: another great guidebook for the art historian setting up shop, and far more pocketable than other books on this list!
    – Giorgio Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Artists’: a bookshelf collection if ever there was one, especially the extensive ‘Everyman’ editions of 1927, that are still smaller than A5 size. Again, specified to the Italian Renaissance, but where would art history be without Vasari?

    Thanks again for your article!

    1. Thanks so much for these suggestions James! I can’t believe I haven’t come across the Marcia Pointon book, sounds like an ideal introduction. And Vasari… of course this one is essential. I never bought this, just repeatedly took it out of the library at uni. Ruth x

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