The Best Art History Books To Read

Art History can be a daunting course, even for the most enthusiastic of students. That’s why ART SMART is here to help. With the help of our incredible art historian guides, we have created a list of the best, most highly recommended Art History books.

From textbooks to photographic histories, these books are key for any budding art historian. Dive deeper into certain artistic periods, brush up on your terminology, and gain an understanding of the entire chronology of the art world. After reading these, you’ll be sure to ace any Art History test thrown your way.

The first book on our list is The Art Museum, published by Phaidon Press in 2012. This massive text contains large pictures of the most important works of art from antiquity to modern times, and includes works from every major museum or collection. Not only is this book valuable for its inclusiveness, it is also an excellent visual reference. In addition, The Art Museum also includes short, introductory essays.

Our next book, which is perhaps most widely recognized text in art history, is Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Sold in two volumes, Art Through the Ages is the most trusted textbook for university-level art history courses. Volume One explores the art world through a global perspective, while Volume Two covers everything related to and influenced by the western ideals of art. And here’s a helpful hint: search for older editions of the books as they largely feature the same material and can be purchased more cheaply.

Third on our list is Stephen Little’s Isms: Understanding Art, which was published in 2004. This pocket-sized book explains the most difficult art history jargon by breaking down each artistic movement or period style in terms that are accessible to aspiring art historians and casual museum-goers alike. As it includes photo highlights and examples to go along with explanations, this book is especially useful for visual learners.

Another classic art history text that should not be overlooked is E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. This is a great option for anyone just starting out in art history, as it gives a good overview of cultural history. The book starts with prehistoric art and finishes with 19th-century art in England, France and America. Though it is not the most up-to-date pick on our list, it is full of non-condescending art criticism.

Our next recommendation is Art in America 1945-1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism, edited by Jed Perl. This book is a compilation of primary sources from the major figures of the period, including artist Andy Warhol and writer Truman Capote. It includes everything from memoir passages, magazine articles, and interviews to pamphlets, correspondence, and diary entries.

The final book on our art history shortlist is Art: A Visual History, written by Robert Cumming in 2015. Another great option for visual learners, this text features a very visually engaging overview of art history. It also includes many timelines and visual chronologies, making it the perfect study tool.

Use this list of books to help jumpstart, or get ahead on, your art history education. If you’re looking for more one-on-one guidance, book one of our private museum tours or check out our AP Art History Boot Camp.


Want to get your kids interested in culture and art or get them prepared for a trip abroad? Check out these titles such to inspire young and old alike.

goo gen heim art books for kids

An engaging way to introduce younger ones to the world of museums is to start them off reading about the environments ahead of time. Children as young as two get the concepts of I’d Like the Goo-Gen-Heim, and You Can’t Take A Balloon Into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once they know the Babar series, Babar’s Museum of Art makes for a great exercise in sameness and difference, as the books is filled with masterpieces from the Met Museum (and elsewhere) that have been tweaked to match the world of Babar. Seen Art? provides a wonderful seek-and-find resource for MoMA, and Going to the Getty is perfect for families visiting that West Coast museum.


The discoveries to find in NYC are countless, but here are a few titles to provide your family some focus: This is New York, My New York, Next Stop Grand Central, Larry Gets Lost in New York City (pictured below, with orange-hued views of NYC), and the classic Sector 7 about a trip to the Empire State Building (pictured below, with clouds).

Modern art

Modern art is always popular with children, but it is often hard for parents to talk about. Here are a few fun stores to get you going: Uncle Andy’s, Action Jackson, and Pablo Picasso: Breaking All the Rules.

Rome & Venice

For those traveling to Italy, we have several recommendations. Uh-Oh Leonardo is perfect into for families sightseeing in Florence. For kids traveling to Venice, pick up Zoe Sophia’s Scrapbook: An Adventure in Venice, Gaspard on Vacation (pictured), Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe, or Venice: Great Cities through the Ages. Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe has long been one of our favorite illustrated children’s books for years (two pages pictured below). And don’t forget the new Olivia Goes to Venice (available for download to e-readers too). For families heading to Rome, our favorite suggestions are Fodor’s Around Rome with Kids, This is Rome (improve your Italian by picking up the Italian version, Questa e’ Roma (pictured below)), Rome Antics (adults and kids alike will love the drawings of the Roman views), Pompeii: Lost & Found, Roman Fort (great for the boys), and Rome in Spectacular Cross-Section.

Art Books for Kids

There are tons of great books for those visiting Paris. Our favorites are Fodor’s Around Paris with Kids, Charlotte in Paris, This is Paris, and Paris: Great Cities through the Ages. When in Paris, pick up a copy of A Trip to the Orsay Museum and Destination Paris.


Greek myths are easy fodder for bite-size portions of classical education. Just mix in popular contemporary children’s literature, such as the Harry Potter series, and The Lightening Thief. Our top picks are Top Ten Greek Myths, D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, Greece! Rome! Monters! (pictured by the fire-breathing chimera), A Visitor’s Guide to Ancient Greece, and Strong Stuff (shown here) for those who are taken with the adventures of Hercules/ Herakles.


Many families traveling to London wait until they get there for the learning to start. We recommend you pick up as many of these books ahead of time to get the kids over-the-moon excited before your plane even takes off. There’s Madeline in London, Fodor’s Around London with Kids, Kings & Queens, The Story of London, Tower Power: Tales from the Tower of London, This is London, Discover London, and Neil Morris’s London.


China and Chinese language is all the rage right now, so why not have fun with this trend by using it to introduce your child to Eastern cultures? The Pet Dragon demonstrates how basic Chinese characters often look like what they represent. And Made in China shows children the wonders of China, such as the Great Wall of China and the terra cotta soldiers.

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