Art History Books

The history of art goes back thousands of years. Have you ever wished you could learn more about the artists who have changed history? With the right art history books, you can.

Art history books teach you about different movements throughout history, as well as different artists and their works. We've put together a list of our favorite art history books.

Whether you're a scholar or just looking for a light read, there's something here for you.

Top 8: Best Art History Books

1. Artists: Their Lives and Works

Artists: Their Lives and Works

This reference book focuses on more than 80 specific artists. It details their life histories, including their passions and loves. The book also has rich printings of the most famous works by each of the artists.

It talks about people who pioneered different art styles, people who showcased a unique voice through their art, and people whose work is still talked about centuries after they lived.

Especially grand are the full-page prints, which show color reproductions of an artist's work.

More than 500 years of art history is considered. The chapters are organized by century. The final chapter covers 1945 to the present day.

Even if you're an art history student, this book is likely to have information you haven't heard before. It contains many anecdotes about the lives of different artists, including rivalries and romances they had with their peers.


  • The book covers more than 500 years of art history, with each chapter organized by the century.
  • There are biographies of more than 80 artists, including interesting stories about their lives.
  • The book features full-color full-page prints of each artist's most famous works.


  • The book doesn't have a very academic approach to different art styles, so it's not the best if you want a scholarly analysis.

2. Art That Changed the World

Art That Changed the World

Instead of focusing on the lives and biographies of individual artists, Art That Changed the World brings you on a journey through different art movements. The book functions as a tour of over 2,500 vital pieces crafted by over 700 artists.

Another key selling point of this book is that it doesn't focus exclusively on European art. Though it does devote time to Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, you'll also learn about art from China's Ming era, indigenous Australian art, and traditional Japanese and Hindu art.

The book analyzes themes that recur in the art, like religion and love. It explains the differences in genres, how the art reflects the society of the time, and what the different themes might mean about humanity as a whole.

Each artist has their most important works highlighted. The book talks about the most striking aspects of their technique, including what sets them apart from other artists before and after their time.

The book shows how different genres were influenced by each other. For example, it explains how some of Van Gogh's inspiration came from Japanese art, and how impressionists were inspired by the art style of those who came before.

All in all, this is a great choice if you want an art history book that discusses the evolution of art all over the world.


  • The book showcases over 2,500 pieces from more than 700 artists spanning centuries.
  • It looks at art from parts of Asia and Australia as well as European art.
  • It analyzes the technique and themes used by different artists, as well as how these reflected the time period.


  • The book doesn't get as in-depth with artist biographies as the previous option on the list.

3. Discovering Great Artists (Bright Ideas for Learning)

Discovering Great Artists (Bright Ideas for Learning)

This hands-on art book allows you to learn about more than 60 different artists. The simple, fun appreciation activities let you get in touch with your inner creative. It's a great option for both kids and adults who want to learn more about the art world.

Each featured artist is given a quick, concise biography that explains why their work is important. The art activities let you try out the techniques of each artist. For example, you might design machines like da Vinci, or sketch in nature notebooks like Audubon.

The book allows you to try different approaches to art. You get to think outside the box and develop your own sense of style. Perhaps most importantly, you learn that there is no one "true" way to be an artist.

In addition to the projects, the book has information about the movement or style that the artist worked within.


  • The hands-on projects let you try the techniques and approaches of more than 60 different artists.
  • Each artist has a biography page with information about why their work matters.
  • It's a great book for both kids and creative adults who want to learn more about art history.


  • Since the book is geared toward kids, it's not as packed with information as some options.

4. Discovering Infinite Connections in Art History

Discovering Infinite Connections in Art History

This stunning book was put together by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It discusses more than 6,000 years of the history of art, including the ways that different movements have influenced artists.

The book features over 800 works that are found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It also has an organizational system totally unlike any other. Instead of being sorted by geography or time period, different pieces are sorted by theme.

This allows you to see how different key themes and techniques have persisted in human artwork across different cultures for thousands of years.

In addition to the artwork, there are over 160 essays that explain the context of the different works. A detachable folding timeline shows you exactly where and when different pieces and movements took place.


  • The book is made by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and features over 800 artworks with over 150 essays.
  • Works are sorted by theme, so you can see parallels in global art spanning thousands of years.
  • There's a focus on art from all over the world, rather than just European art.


  • The reading can be a little dense for people who want something lighter and easier to digest.

5. The Joy of Art

The Joy of Art

This is an art history book written for people who want to better appreciate art. It discusses the different elements of visual art, teaching the reader how to understand and analyze what they're seeing.

Rather than being a dense art history lesson, the book is built to show you how to discuss the art you see at a museum. It is an illustrated guide that was created by an artist.

Inside this book, you'll find a vocabulary to help you understand the art you're seeing. You'll learn about the different elements to look at in visual art, highlights of some of the most popular art genres, and basic information regarding the artists who pioneered them.

The book also features visuals that teach you about aesthetic practices. You can play a few little games to test your knowledge once you've completed the reading.


  • Written by an artist, this book teaches you to recognize and analyze different pieces of visual art.
  • It includes information about different art movements and the artists who pioneered them.
  • It has multiple visual examples, including 150 color photographs.


  • While the book has strong art history elements, it's not chiefly an art history text.

6. The Visual Arts: A History

The Visual Arts: A History

This stunning art history book has been the leader in art history education for more than 25 years. The 7th revised edition was published only recently, and it includes information about contemporary art movements and artists.

The book aims to introduce you to the basics about humanity's art history. Rather than focusing on great works alone, it discusses the ancient arts done by past cultures all over the globe.

Even though the subject matter is broad, covering thousands of years all over the world, the book strives to provide fine details. It explains the different art movements and how they related to society.

The book is almost 1,000 pages in length. It features over 1,500 black-and-white photographs. Every chapter starts with a timeline that matches different art movements to the relevant historical events of the time period.

If you're getting started on a serious art history journey, you'll be pleased by the further reading recommendations. Every chapter has sources that you can peruse for greater detail. There's also a glossary to keep terms straight.

Since this is such a dense and academic book, it is one of the more expensive options on the list. But it's a must-have for any serious art history student.


  • The book features over 1,500 images and almost 1,000 pages of text.
  • It discusses art movements and art history on a global scale spanning thousands of years.
  • Each chapter has references for further reading, so you can do a more in-depth study if something piques your interest.


  • It's fairly expensive, especially if you're just looking for a casual read.

7. The Short Story of Art

The Short Story of Art

The Short Story of Art is a book that functions as a field guide to art. It's a small, pocket-sized travel book with a simple layout. The author has chosen to explore 50 works that have a marked impact on art history.

One of the biggest selling points is that this book makes concepts accessible to those without a strong art history background. If you're intimidated by the dense academic text in some of these options, this is the book for you. It's a primer to the most important terms in art history.

The book explains different concepts, shows how different movements and periods are connected, and gives information about who changed the game.

It's a very simple book, but it's one of the best if you want a beginner's introductory guide.


  • The pocket-sized book can be easily carried around, and the text is simple to read.
  • There is information about 50 different artworks that have influenced art history.
  • The book explains how different art movements are connected and who pioneered them.


  • It's a little more simplistic than someone who already has a background in art history might be looking for.

8. ArtCurious: Stories of the Unexpected

ArtCurious: Stories of the Unexpected

This is a great choice if you're looking for a more entertaining venture into art history. While the book is educational, it doesn't have the dryness of a textbook. Instead, it tells you quirky and fun anecdotes about different parts of art history.

For example, you might not know that Monet's work was originally considered ugly. Or that Andy Warhol has an entire tail built around a moldy birthday cake.

Even if you're a learned art student, the book will have stories that surprise you. You'll learn about the humanity of different artists, and about how that humanity influenced their art.

Consider this a book of art history for people who aren't particularly interested in art or history. The stories are zany enough that you don't need to be interested!


  • The book is filled with quirky anecdotes that can entertain even those who are bored by art history.
  • It's educational about different art movements, but in such a fun way that you won't get bored.
  • It has compelling information about different artists and their lives.


  • It doesn't have the same global, in-depth look at art history that some pieces do.

Final Thoughts

Art history is a broad and nuanced topic. There are so many different angles that you can explore. Do you want to learn about artists, or movements, or the ways that different civilizations have painted through the centuries?

The right book for you will vary depending on your interests.

For a look at many different artists, we recommend Artists: Their Lives and Works. This book includes biographies and artwork from multiple artists.

For a general history, Art That Changed the World is a great start. It showcases different pieces and explains how they influenced art history.

For an in-depth global history, we recommend Visual Arts: A History. This book comes with nearly 1,000 pages of information about artistic traditions that span thousands of years on every continent.

Frequently Asked Questions

When was art first created?

As far as scientists and historians can tell, humans have been creating art for as long as we've existed. The oldest known example of two-dimensional art is dated at about 32,000 years ago!

What is art history?

Art history refers to the history of art: different artistic movements, influential artists, and the ways that art shapes and is shaped by society. It spans thousands of years across all known cultures.