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Despite what you may have heard that art history is a frivolous course of study, it is more than just memorizing the names and dates of paintings. Fundamentally, art history is a dynamic field that combines skills in history, criticism, anthropology, architecture, sociology, linguistics, economics, chemistry, etc., all through the prism of art. Art historians don’t just end up as museum curators (which are very competitive positions). They can end up as artists, environmentalists, critics or involved in law, geopolitics and social justice.
Some of us even end up writing for Book Riot.
If you’re looking to explore art history as a potential field or hobby, we’ve rounded up some of the best art history books to get you started. We have divided it into three sections: Investigation, Art Criticism and Analysis, and Biographies.
Survey of art history books
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History by Fred S. Kleiner
If you’ve ever taken an art history class, chances are you’ve read a Gardner delivered. Bringing together the entire human history of art in one or two texts is no easy task, but the accessibility of this text and its wide range of works truly make it one of the best history books in the world. non-fictional art. World history This is currently in its 16th edition, but there are a variety of Gardner books, some in multiple volumes or with specializations. Because it is commonly used in colleges, it is very easy to find it at a discount at a second-hand seller or in a second-hand bookstore. Many of these are written or edited by academics who have articles and other work available digitally or in journals, which we encourage you to explore.
Art Beyond the West by Michael Kampen-O’Riley, PhD
Pearson books are also widely used in most 101 courses. Art beyond the West (1) has to do a big job, trying to bring together the entire art history of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean and the Americas in a few hundred pages. Unfortunately, like most textbooks, this work on non-white art is written by someone outside of this heritage (2). But if you’re someone who has no idea what art from non-Eurocentric places is, this is a good survey.
Art History Book 1: Ancient Art: Portable Edition by Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren
While a world study book like Gardner ‘s will address ancient art, it is generally the areas of art history (ancient and contemporary) that are overlooked in most of the survey scenarios and courses. But the history of ancient art is fascinating! Also having an idea of ancient art is a good basis for understanding art in general. Like most Pearson textbooks, Ancient art is large and accessible, which makes it one of those truly essential books on art history.
Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick
If you are looking for a short and dense book on how women have been both authors and works of art, Dr. Chadwick has got you covered. This work is clear and concise, and it is also a great overall summary of Western art! Chadwick does a great job describing how changing social norms and politics affected the way women made art and how they were simultaneously portrayed in art. She skillfully uses individual biographies to illustrate how these changes came about and their effects. It is also extremely accessible, which is very necessary to democratize the study of art history.
Criticism and art analysis
African Renaissance: ancient forms, new images in Yoruba art by Moyo Okediji
African Renaissance is a great introduction to one of the biggest artistic diasporas. Dr Okediji traces the history of Yoruba art from West Africa, including slavery and modern art. African Renaissance explores the modality and portability of art forms and patterns as they change or are forced to adapt to dire circumstances. Okediji is perhaps the foremost expert on the Yoruba artistic diaspora, and we would recommend his other works such as The broken squash, if it is offered for sale.
Immanent Vitalities: Meaning and Materiality in Modern and Contemporary Art by Kaira Cabañas
Is it particularly easy to read? No. But it is extremely interesting and stimulating. Dr Cabañas’ work is a prime example of how art historians can weave multiple fields, histories and theories to explore art and innovation. His predominant field of study is modernism, surrealism and the Latin American arts. Immanent vitalities is a great discussion of power and art, and if you like the more modern South American art scene or avant-garde work, this could be for you.
Power and Glory: Chinese Ming Dynasty Court Arts by He Li and Michael Knight
Let’s talk about catalog books. Sometimes at specific exhibitions or conferences, or for certain fields of study, a catalog book can be created. These types of texts tend to be more focused on displaying art for study and less textual than many other works. Even though they sometimes look (or are!) Like table books, these works often include a more in-depth analysis of specific works or periods presented. This is still a wealth of knowledge, and Power and glory is a prime example. China has a long and varied art history, but focusing on a period like the Ming Dynasty can allow art historians to appreciate art and understand its impact. Sometimes the in-depth study of a selected piece or two is more informative than a broad discussion of centuries of work.
Borders by Maya Lin
This verbal sketchbook is less of a critical discussion and more of a look at how an artist views their work and how they want to build their work. Maya Lin is the creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Civil Rights Memorial, and continues to create striking public sculptures. This “journal” explores the way in which she approaches artistic creation. It’s insightful, beautiful, and a great read for artists and art critics.
The history of art Biographies
Frida Kahlo’s Diary: An Intimate Self-Portrait of Carlos Fuentes
The diary is a combination of biography and facsimile of Kahlo’s own diaries. Fuentes offers translations and full pictures of his own sketchbook and journal. He comments and contextualizes his art and his life in his own pages. The result is a controversial but illuminating look at the artist’s life through his own eyes and those of a historian.
Hokusai: a graphic biography of Giuseppe Lantazi and Francesco Matteuzzi
The vibrant life of Katsushika Hokusai shines through in this interpretation of a graphic novel. Lantazi and Matteuzzi pay homage to this artist’s block printing style while modernizing his prolific life for modern readers. It’s a great look at the artist behind one of the most iconic Japanese works of all time.
Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw
Kara Walker is one of today’s great living, and See the unspeakable This is to detail the reasons why with a thorough artistic and historical analysis. DuBois Shaw dissects some of Walker’s works to paint more than just a biographical picture of Walker’s life, but how his work works against black history and modernity. It is a biography drawn from a careful reading of the work, and the result is, like Walker’s art, intriguing and stimulating.
Immerse yourself in art history books
While we’ve sorted out some of the best art history books, we encourage you to research more. As you may have understood, art historians like to be very specific. Chances are, if you like something like modern glass sculpture, or West African Secret Society art, or Mid-Century American Southwestern art, there’s someone one probably wrote something about it. The history of art is all about finding what moves you, then holding your breath and diving deep below the surface. There is literally a whole world of art to explore.
- A note on terminology: Unfortunately, while the field is and has become very diverse, there are disguised vestiges of discriminatory taxonomy and categorization. This is particularly noticeable in terms of “Western” and “non-Western” art. “Western” art refers to any art produced in Europe and by those of European descent, predominantly white. “Non-Western” refers to all other arts, regardless of the wide range of cultures, traditions and people involved. The history of art often gives priority to European art over that of the multitude of other artistic cultures. This article will attempt to restrict the use of these terms to the extent possible and will include non-European art history books.
- As in most academic disciplines, many seminal texts are written by white writers or professors who have had the opportunity to stay in school for long periods of time. However, art history is an international field, and the growing number of experts is very diverse. Most of the advanced art history studies are very specialized and focused, which is why you might not see many women or writers of color in the immediate investigative texts, but as more focused scholarship authors.