The best art history books

1 authors have picked their favorite books about art history and why they recommend each book.

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The Story of Art

By E.H. Gombrich,

Book cover of The Story of Art

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.


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.

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

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.

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.

Women, Art, and Society

By Whitney Chadwick,

Book cover of Women, Art, and Society

As an undergrad, I was blessed to have two professors who changed the course of my life: Angela Davis and Whitney Chadwick. Both of these professors discussed the intersectionality of gender, race, and class. Women, Art, and Society was published in 1990, and in 2020, the sixth edition was released. Although women artists’ representation in art history pedagogy has improved since 1990, the art world in general still favors men over women, making Chadwick’s book a relevant read. It provides a historical and critical look at women artists from the Middle Ages to the present, covering a range of media and artists from various cultural and geographical backgrounds. It challenges the assumption that great women artists are the exception to the rule and charts the evolution of feminist art history. 


Who am I?

As a teenager, I found the layered poetry of Sylvia Plath as riveting as an impasto-layered canvas by Vincent Van Gogh. A love for the rhythm of words and paint, as well as the power of art to tell stories and critique history led me to study art history. Influential college professors opened my eyes to the systematic exclusion of women from art and history. Today, I’m a professor at the University of San Francisco, where I specialize in modern, contemporary, and African art, with an emphasis upon issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and class. I’m particularly interested in women artists and artists who cross cultural boundaries. 


I wrote...

Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist

By Celia Stahr,

Book cover of Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist

What is my book about?

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo adored adventure. In 1930, she was thrilled to realize her dream of traveling to the United States. Only twenty-three and newly married to world-famous muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo was at a crossroads in her life. San Francisco, Detroit, and New York with their magnificent beauty, horrific poverty, racial tension, anti-Semitism, and thriving music and dance scenes, pushed Kahlo in unexpected directions. Shifts in her style of painting began to appear, cracks in her marriage widened, and tragedy struck twice, while she was living in Detroit. Frida in America is the first in-depth biography of these formative years spent in what Frida often called “Gringolandia,” a place that both angered and fascinated her. 

All the Things I Know

By Audrey Ryan, Zorylee Diaz-Lupitou (illustrator),

Book cover of All the Things I Know

Audrey Ryan’s debut novel joyfully leaps off the page, shouting, “I wanna tell you a story about some Millennials!”—in all the best ways. I’m always up for a well-written coming-of-age story, and this one made me, a jaded GenXer, once again feel the bittersweet hope (and fear) of figuring out your life on your own terms. 


Who am I?

Austen-inspired works are nothing new (think the movie Clueless or "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" vlog) but unless you’re walking around the Austen fan world, you might not realize just how many books are out there. I became immersed in that world around 2006, and since then, I’ve written four Austen retellings, one Austen-inspired original novel, and several short stories. I’ve read countless other works (both published and on the internet,) and now run a little website called Austen Through the Ages. Below I list 5 Pride & Prejudice-inspired novels that ring true for me—they bring Austen’s themes and characters into modern settings, each putting a unique spin on the classic tale. 


I wrote...

1932: Pride and Prejudice Revisited

By Karen M. Cox,

Book cover of 1932: Pride and Prejudice Revisited

What is my book about?

During the upheaval of the Great Depression, Elizabeth Bennet’s life is torn asunder. Her family’s relocation from Chicago to a family farm in Kentucky has changed her future, and now, she must build a new life. William Darcy suffered family turmoil of his own, but he has settled into a peaceful life at Pemberley, the largest farm in the county. Single, rich, and seemingly content, he remains aloof—immune to any woman’s charms. Until Elizabeth Bennet moves to town. 

As Darcy begins to yearn for something he knows is missing, Elizabeth’s circumstances become more precarious. Can they put aside their pride and prejudices long enough to find their way to each other? 1932, Cox’s award-winning debut novel, is a unique twist on Austen’s classic tale.

The Arts of China

By Michael Sullivan,

Book cover of The Arts of China

From a leading Western scholar on the topic, it is a comprehensive, well-researched, and highly readable account of Chinese fine arts from the Neolithic to the contemporary. It serves the need of college courses on Asian or Chinese art history as well as the interest of a common reader who wants to explore or better appreciate the aesthetics of Chinese art relics, including bronze, pottery, sculpture, etc., as well as the honorable splendor of calligraphy and painting.

Who am I?

I am a Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Riverside. I was brought up in the family of a Chinese poetry scholar. Arriving in the States for my graduate studies at Harvard in 1982, I have engaged myself in academia here ever since. Acutely aware of, and deeply fascinated by, the cultural similarities and differences of China and the West, I have continued my learning experience, in my thirty years of college teaching, often from direct exchanges with my students. The books on my list of recommendations include both required texts chosen for my courses, and those I want to share with what Virginia Woolf called the Common Reader.


I wrote...

Vignettes from the Late Ming: A Hsiao-p'in Anthology

By Yang Ye (translator),

Book cover of Vignettes from the Late Ming: A Hsiao-p'in Anthology

What is my book about?

More than two decades after its publication, this anthology of seventy pieces from fourteen representative writers remains a rare, if not entirely unprecedented, selection of belles-lettres non-fictional essays from the Chinese tradition which provide invaluable glimpses of the colorful daily life of the Chinese society during the Late Ming period, especially that of the literati or men of letters. Generically meant to amuse and entertain its readers, as well as the authors themselves, the vignette (hsiao-p’in) focuses on sensual pleasures and triviality, and more than often displays individual personality and wit in a playful manner. It could help the reader to better appreciate and understand the psyche and spirit of an important epoch of new developments in literature and fine arts in Chinese history.       

The Short Story of 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)

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. 


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.

Isms

By Stephen Little,

Book cover of Isms: Understanding Art

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!


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.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood

By Jan Marsh,

Book cover of Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood

This is the book that ignited my interest in the Pre-Raphaelite circle and the women who inspired them. Jan Marsh is Pre-Raphaelite royalty when it comes to art history and her work is both pioneering and inspiring.  She has gone such a long way to uncover the hidden lives of these incredibly important women and those who have followed her owe her a great deal. This is the book that marked when the women began to be taken as seriously as the men.


Who am I?

I absolutely love the Pre-Raphaelites, they are my utter passion and these books are the fuel for that fire. Who wouldn't want to be a Pre-Raphaelite woman? Smart, talented, resourceful, these women define what it is to make a mark and great some of the most ground-breaking art in history. I'm particularly obsessed with Pre-Raphaelite women, the artists and muses who created the art we love so much today. After spending almost 30 years researching their lives and loves, it's now my absolute pleasure in telling everyone about these astonishing women, and why we should love them and learn from them.


I wrote...

Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang: Fifty Makers, Shakers and Heartbreakers from the Victorian Era

By Kirsty Stonell Walker, Kingsley Nebechi (illustrator),

Book cover of Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang: Fifty Makers, Shakers and Heartbreakers from the Victorian Era

What is my book about?

Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang will introduce readers of all ages to the remarkable women of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement. From models to artists, these women all contributed something personal and incredible towards the most beautiful and imaginative art movement in the world. Rich or poor, black or white, these women redefined what it meant to be beautiful and influential in a male-dominated world and broke new ground in art, business, and women’s rights to pursue the life they loved.

Spanning almost a century and uncovering the truth behind some familiar and less familiar faces, this collection will offer new information to readers already interested in Pre-Raphaelite art and open the doors on an enchanting and revolutionary band of women who are unlikely and compelling role models.

Headlong

By Michael Frayn,

Book cover of Headlong

This is a book I buy every time I see it in order to give it away. It’s one of my favourite novels and one I re-read every couple of years. It’s about a man who thinks his rich neighbour owns a Brueghel (a missing panel from the “Seasons” series) and his plans to steal it. It captures the nature of art obsession, and of that desire in all of us to discover something new, be it a hidden masterpiece, the solution to a long-unsolved crime, or perhaps a first edition book on our shelves. It’s funny, educational, entrancing and now I have to go and read it again.

Who am I?

Shirley Jackson award-winner Kaaron Warren published her first short story in 1993 and has had fiction in print every year since. She was recently given the Peter McNamara Lifetime Achievement Award and was Guest of Honour at World Fantasy 2018, Stokercon 2019 and Geysercon 2019.  She has also been Guest of Honour at Conflux in Canberra and Genrecon in Brisbane.

She has published five multi-award winning novels (Slights, Walking the Tree, Mistification, The Grief Hole and Tide of Stone) and seven short story collections, including the multi-award winning Through Splintered Walls. Her most recent short story collection is A Primer to Kaaron Warren from Dark Moon Books. Her most recent novella, Into Bones Like Oil (Meerkat Press), was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award and the Bram Stoker Award, winning the Aurealis Award. Her stories have appeared in both Ellen Datlow’s and Paula Guran’s Year’s Best anthologies.


I wrote...

The Grief Hole

By Kaaron Warren,

Book cover of The Grief Hole

What is my book about?

When I was writing The Grief Hole, a novel about a woman who knows how you’re going to die by the ghosts who haunt you, and her battle with Sol Evictus, a charismatic singer and art collector, I visited the New Jersey State Museum with family. There were a number of artworks on show there that resonated within the novel, and with the choices Sol Evictus makes. He only collects paintings and sculptures with dark inspiration, such as The Sempstress, by Richard Redgrave, Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents, and the photographs of Dina Gottleibson.

There I saw Adolph Konrad’s “Summer Afternoon’, where a large, white house dominated the painting. It seemed to loom over the people sitting, stone-faced, at a table in the overgrown garden in the foreground. Around them, behind them, between them, were ghosts; pale, transparent figures. Being Sol Evictus, most of his pieces are stolen, and I loved researching art theft as I wrote.

This Little Artist

By Joan Holub, Daniel Roode (illustrator),

Book cover of This Little Artist: An Art History Primer

Part of the This Little series, Joan Holub’s This Little Artist is an introduction to art history for our wee ones. Daniel Roode’s stylized figures with big round eyes illustrate greats such as Michelangelo, Mary Cassatt, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. A rhyme and portrait give an introduction on the left-hand page, and several facts follow to accompany the artist in their own setting on the right page. The book concludes with eighteen other artists and their techniques, as well as questioning what your reader might create. This is a little treasure of creativity and inspiration.  


Who am I?

In the course of everyday life, when I’m writing books for middle grade and young adult readers, board books spring to my mind. Sometimes they come from catching a glimpse of a child hugging a parent, or they may spring from a phrase I overhear or say myself. That sounds like a board book, I think, and I write it down quickly. Sometimes, I’ll wake in the night, and a board book text will come to me in rhyme. Along with writing board books, I’ve been recommending quality works at the readertotz blog since 2009 in order to raise the profile of the format. Authors, illustrators, and publishers must create the very best quality, and then we must support, enjoy, and celebrate the works. A simple eight words may introduce a first reader to a love of books for life.


I wrote...

I Love All of Me (Wonderful Me)

By Lorie Ann Grover, Carolina Búzio (illustrator),

Book cover of I Love All of Me (Wonderful Me)

What is my book about?

What do you love about you? Find out in this book full of wonder and love! I love my wiggle toes. I love my smelly nose!

From head to toe, there's so much to love about you! With charming illustrations and a bouncy text that begs to be read aloud, this padded board book is a joyous reminder to little ones to love their whole selves -- just as they are. A glorious celebration that's full of humor, love, and heart. Wonderful Me: Books that celebrate the milestone emotional and social moments of little ones!

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