The best books for art newbies

Jennifer Dasal Author Of ArtCurious: Stories of the Unexpected, Slightly Odd, and Strangely Wonderful in Art History
By Jennifer Dasal

Who am I?

I’m an art historian, author, and the former curator of modern and contemporary art at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina—so art is my thing! I’m the host of the independent podcast ArtCurious, which I started in 2016 and which was named one of the best podcasts by O, The Oprah Magazine and PC Magazine, among other outlets. I’m also the author of a book called ArtCurious, which was lauded in Publisher’s Weekly, BookPage, and Booklist. I’ve got advanced degrees in art history and love to share all my enthusiasm for art whenever I can (also: travel!). 


I wrote...

ArtCurious: Stories of the Unexpected, Slightly Odd, and Strangely Wonderful in Art History

By Jennifer Dasal,

Book cover of ArtCurious: Stories of the Unexpected, Slightly Odd, and Strangely Wonderful in Art History

What is my book about?

We’re all familiar with the works of Claude Monet, thanks to the ubiquitous reproductions of his water lilies on umbrellas, handbags, and. But did you also know that Monet and his cohort were trailblazing rebels whose works were originally deemed ugly and vulgar? Or how about the fact that one of Andy Warhol’s most enduring legacies involves Caroline Kennedy’s moldy birthday cake and a collection of toenail clippings?

ArtCurious is a colorful look at the world of art history, revealing some of the strangest, funniest, and most fascinating stories behind the world’s great artists and masterpieces, presenting an engaging look at why art history is, and continues to be, a riveting and relevant world to explore.

The books I picked & why

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The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to the Present

By Carol Strickland,

Book cover of The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to the Present

Why this book?

This book is my top recommendation for any art newbie that comes to me asking for book ideas. Where should I start if I want to learn about art history? Start right here! The Annotated Mona Lisa is easy to read, and educational yet entertaining, and it'll help you discover everything from what cave paintings actually mean, to the difference between Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism (hint: it's right there in the name), and even how contemporary artists make work out of miscellaneous objects. Great for preteens on up.


The Story of Art

By E.H. Gombrich,

Book cover of The Story of Art

Why this book?

This one is a little bit headier. Gombrich is one of the big names in art history (take any graduate level course in art history methodology, and he’s one of the first names mentioned). But there’s a reason that’s he’s one of the biggies: his information is thorough. For the bookish newbie, this one is a real win.


Why is Art Full of Naked People? and Other Vital Questions about Art, by Susie Hodge

By Susie Hodge,

Book cover of Why is Art Full of Naked People? and Other Vital Questions about Art, by Susie Hodge

Why this book?

It is a great question, right? For your curious child (or anyone that especially likes a giggle), this is the perfect “art history, explained” reader. I’m a big fan of this one. The book is structured around twenty-two questions, and some are straightforward, like the title question, while others ("Why is everything so flat in Egyptian art?" or "Are stick men art?") might make grown-ups think differently, too. Whether you're a longtime art lover or just setting foot into a museum for the first time, I guarantee that this book will teach you something new.


The Short Story of Art: A Pocket Guide to Key Movements, Works, Themes, & Techniques (Art History Introduction, a Guide to Art)

By Susie Hodge,

Book cover of The Short Story of Art: A Pocket Guide to Key Movements, Works, Themes, & Techniques (Art History Introduction, a Guide to Art)

Why this book?

I love this book! Like the idea of The Annotated Mona Lisa but don’t want quite so much detail? This one is great— let’s take 50 works of art throughout art history and tell you exactly why they are important. Easy peasy, and filled with humor and joy, too. 


Isms: Understanding Art

By Stephen Little,

Book cover of Isms: Understanding Art

Why this book?

For an art or art history newbie, all those “isms” can be really overwhelming: what is Cubism? What is Impressionism? What does Post-Impressionism mean, other than it came along after Impressionism? This is a readable book that will help casual viewers understand art without getting bogged down in the academic details. It’s art history and art appreciation mixed together, without pain or boredom!


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in art, art history, and the Mona Lisa?

5,809 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about art, art history, and the Mona Lisa.

Art Explore 103 books about art
Art History Explore 15 books about art history
The Mona Lisa Explore 4 books about the Mona Lisa

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Process, Icon, and Transluminal if you like this list.