The best books for art newbies

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Jennifer Dasal Why did I love 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.

By Carol Strickland,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Annotated Mona Lisa as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An illustrated tutorial of prehistoric to contemporary world art, from cave paintings to video art installations to digital and Internet media in an easy-to-understand format.

This heavily illustrated crash course in art history is revised and updated from the second edition published in 2007, including a new chapter about recent artists and movements. Featuring succinct page-length essays, instructive sidebars, and more than 300 photographs, The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to the Present takes art education out of the realm of dreary textbooks, demystifies jargon and theory, and makes the history of art movements…


Book cover of The Story of Art

Jennifer Dasal Why did I love 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.

By E.H. Gombrich,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Story of Art as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Story of Art, one of the most famous and popular books on art ever written, has been a world bestseller for over four decades. Attracted by the simplicity and clarity of his writing, readers of all ages and backgrounds have found in Professor Gombrich a true master, and one who combines knowledge and wisdom with a unique gift for communicating his deep love of the subject.

For the first time in many years the book has been completely redesigned. The illustrations, now in colour throughout, have all been improved and reoriginated, and include six fold-outs. The text has been…


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

Jennifer Dasal Why did I love 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.

By Susie Hodge,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Why is Art Full of Naked People? and Other Vital Questions about Art, by Susie Hodge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Artists ask questions when they make art - and viewers ask questions when they look at art. This gently provocative book provides an engaging way for young people to start asking and answering questions for themselves. Why is art full of naked people? is structured around 22 questions, each one tackled over two spreads. The opening spread explores the question and answer, inviting the reader to study a full-bleed image of an important artwork. The second spread shows a selection of work on the theme from across history, showing how art can run with an idea to hugely different ends.…


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

Jennifer Dasal Why did I love 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. 

By Susie Hodge,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Short Story of Art as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Short Story of Art is a new and innovative introduction to the subject of art. Simply constructed, the book explores 50 key works, from the wall paintings of Lascaux to contemporary installations, and then links these to sections on art movements, themes and techniques.

The design of the book allows the student or art enthusiast to easily navigate their way around key periods, artists and styles. Accessible and concise, it simplifies and explains the most important and influential concepts in art, and shows how they are connected.

The book explains how, why and when art changed, who introduced certain…


Book cover of Isms: Understanding Art

Jennifer Dasal Why did I love 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!

By Stephen Little,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Isms as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is an easy to use guide to a wide range of art 'isms'. From the isms of the Renaissance to the isms of now, it gives a practical introduction to all the significant isms that have shaped art history. For each ism, there is a definition, an introduction to the topic, lists of key artists, key words, and key works as well as suggestions of other isms that the reader might be interested in. This book should be a must for everyone who is interested in art - whether they be Sunday afternoon visitors to galleries, art students or…


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The Model Spy: Based on the True Story of Toto Koopman’s World War II Ventures

By Maryka Biaggio,

Book cover of The Model Spy: Based on the True Story of Toto Koopman’s World War II Ventures

Maryka Biaggio Author Of The Model Spy: Based on the True Story of Toto Koopman’s World War II Ventures

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Historical fiction author Lover of hidden stories Research nerd Opera fanatic

Maryka's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

The Model Spy is based on the true story of Toto Koopman, who spied for the Allies and Italian Resistance during World War II.

Largely unknown today, Toto was arguably the first woman to spy for the British Intelligence Service. Operating in the hotbed of Mussolini's Italy, she courted danger every step of the way. As the war entered its final stages, she faced off against the most brutal of forces—Germany's Intelligence Service, the Abwehr.

The Model Spy: Based on the True Story of Toto Koopman’s World War II Ventures

By Maryka Biaggio,

What is this book about?

Celebrated model Toto Koopman had beauty, brains, and fame. Born to a Dutch father and Indonesian mother, she took up the life of a bon vivant in 1920s Paris and modeled for Vogue magazine and Coco Chanel. But modeling didn’t satisfy her. Fluent in six languages, she was adventurous and fascinated by world politics.

In London she attracted the attention of Lord Beaverbrook, the William Randolph Hearst of England. She soon became his confidante, companion, and translator, traversing the Continent and finding herself caught in the winds of impending war. Beaverbrook introduced her to influential people, including a director at…


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

10,000+ 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.

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