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.