8 Best Books About Art History Update 05/2022

Like history in general, art history is subject to a lot of changes and reassessments. Some artists get a place in the history of art while they’re still alive, only to be forgotten and written out of the same thing until or unless they’re rediscovered. Art history, in other words, is a flexible field, but it is important to know how art has changed or at least how well you can understand it. We’ve put together a list of books, both mainstream and specialized, that cover the history of art from ancient times to the present. Artists and art lovers might want to have at least a few of these books on their bookcase. (Price and availability were correct when this was written.)

Penelope J.E. Davies, et al., Janson’s History of Art (9th edition)

In Art History 101 classes all over the world, Horst Woldemar Janson’s book has been the go-to text for more than 60 years. It gives a broad overview of art and architecture from the beginning of civilization to the present. For the most part, it did what it said it would, but there was one big thing missing: women artists. Because the book was written in the Mad Men era and because Janson didn’t think there were any that merited serious attention, he held that view until he died in 1982. Even though Janson’s own book was changed in 2006, his name was still in the title. James McNeill Whistler’s 1871 painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, also known as Whistler’s Mother, was omitted from the list of masterpieces. Instead, photography and decorative art were added, as well as female artists for the first time. Even more important than that, though, was that it replaced Janson’s focus on the male artist as a genius with a more complete reading that takes race and class into account. This most recent edition, which came out in 2013, adds a new chapter on Islamic art.

Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, et al., Art Since 1900 (3rd Edition, two volumes)

Art Since 1900 was written by people who worked on October, an art-critical quarterly that is known for its dense and difficult writing. It was published in 2005 as a corrective to standard art histories while appealing to a wider audience. Still, the book has October’s thorny attitude and poststructuralist bent. This means that it doesn’t believe that art is made up of individual expressions that last for a long time. It doesn’t show how modernism, anti-modernism, and post-modernism came about through artists or groups. Instead, it breaks down 20th-century art through text with short essays that are linked to cultural or historical events for each year between 1900 and 2003. It starts with the publication of Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and ends with the 50th Venice Biennale. Art Since 1900 is a good example of the non-hierarchical way that people talk about art today. It shows how important these events are in the history of art.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists

Giorgio Vasari’s biographies of the most important people in the Italian Renaissance helped us understand art history as we know it today. Many of the people he painted were close friends of his. He lived from 1511 to 1574. This makes the text a good source for studying the epoch that brought Western art into the Western tradition (itself bound until recently to the narrative genre Vasari invented). In 1550, Lives was first published. It covers the time between Cimabue (1240–1302) and Michelangelo (1475–1564) and comes with a general treatise on architecture, sculpture, and painting. In the future, historians would say that Vasari was too focused on artists from Florence and Rome, even though the book was expanded in 1568 to include people from the School of Venice like Titian. The first of many translations of Lives came out in the Netherlands in 1604.

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

A lot of people think this book is about Ancient Greece, but it’s really more about the later civilization. It says that without the Roman Empire, classical art would not have been around long enough to start the Renaissance. The authors say that Rome’s transmission of Greek aesthetics set the stage for Western art. They also say that the Romans didn’t just copy Greek art, but instead reinterpreted and reimagined it. Each of the book’s five chapters talks about a different type of art: painting, sculpture, portraiture, and monuments. They note that the book’s five chapters all deal with lust: for power, posterity, and sex. Side trips to archaeological sites like Pompeii look at how new finds keep us interested in things from the past, but they also point out that it’s all down to chance that they’ll still be around in the future.

H.H. Arnason, History of Modern Art

More than 650 pages, the History of Modern Art by H.H. Arnason looks like a lot, but it has been the most important book on 20th-century art since it came out in 1968. During the 19th century, artists like Manet, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Seurat, and Cezanne fired the first shots of modernism in Paris. This is where the book starts. It then talks about the major movements that have had an impact on painting, sculpture, and architecture in the last 100 years: Cubism, Dada, the Bauhaus, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop Art. The book tells the story of a time that changed how we think about the world and how art fits into it. It has a lot of pictures and is written in a way that is easy to understand. As the 20th century ends and the 21st one starts, History of Modern Art has been updated many times to include the most recent art trends.

E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art

At the start of this book, author E.H. Gombrich says, “There is really no such thing as art. Artists are the only ones. Those words set the tone for what has become one of the most popular books in art history. Gombrich doesn’t talk about big movements or ideas. Instead, he talks about individual pieces of art and the people who made them. This almost always refers to Western male artists who paint. There are a few exceptions to this rule. Still, art history can both help and hurt the experience of art by giving information that isn’t relevant to the act of seeing. This is a very unusual position for an art historian to take. Gombrich says that even though artists like Raphael and Cezanne came from different time periods, they all had to deal with the same problems when they made their art. In the end, the artist’s intentions are what matter.

The editors of Phaidon, The Art Book

Smart and well-made, Phaidon’s A-to-Z directory of artists from all over the world is the one coffee table accessory you should have in your library. In this book, 500 artists are featured, and though some are better known than others, each gets the same luxurious treatment: a full-page, full-color, and razor-sharp print of a key work. All of the entries have a short text that gives a quick overview of the artist’s work in clear, easy-to-read language. Every time you open this book, you’ll see stunning images. Because the artists are arranged alphabetically, you’ll see different styles and eras mixed together on each spread. For example, you’ll see 17th-century Dutch painter Hendrick ter Brugghen and contemporary French conceptualist Daniel Buren on the same spread. Though The Art Book focuses a lot on painting, it also talks about sculpture, photography, video, and other types of art.

Richard Shone and Jean-Paul Stonard, eds., The Books that Shaped Art History: From Gombrich and Greenberg to Alpers and Krauss

This collection of essays about art history books is a good reminder of how closely art and art history go hand in hand. The Books that Shaped Art History brings together a wide range of experts and curators to look at 12 books that changed the way we think about art history. They start with Religious Art in 13th-Century France, written by Émile Mâle in 1898. Mâle’s book was one of the first studies of medieval art. It was also one of the first to use iconography to figure out what images meant. Another book, Heinrich Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History, came out in 1915 and explained how to compare art based on style. If you want to learn more about how writing has shaped art and vice versa, you should read The Books that Shaped Art History. It’s a very detailed look at how writing and art have changed each other.

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