Armchair Art History: 12 Exceptional Art History Books to Read 

Image credit: Buck Lewis on Flickr.

Art in an artist’s studio, a museum, or a gallery can be an experience beyond comparison. But there’s also something powerful about the pleasure of plucking a fantastic art history book from your bookshelf and nestling into your armchair for a good read. In the comfort of your own home, you can explore makers and movements page by page at your own pace, without the distractions we often face on a museum visit – no tired feet, no selfie sticks, and no pushy crowds. 

For those seeking some new titles to add to their art history library, we’ve compiled some of the best art history books ever published. These span the last 700 years of human history and offer a lot of variety: some look to singular movements while others chronicle entire epochs between their covers. Between our selection of classics and newcomers to the field of art history books, we’re sure you’ll find a satisfying title to explore. 

Classical Art: From Greece to Rome, Mary Beard & John Henderson, 2001

Connoisseurs of Classical art history will enjoy famed scholar Dame Mary Beard and her colleague John Henderson’s text entitled, Classical Art: From Greece to Rome. This book, part of the Oxford History of Art series, examines the major works from the peak days of ancient Greek and Roman culture. Beard and Henderson describe how the art of ancient Rome was heavily based on the ideas of the Greeks. The authors also explain how Greek and Roman art served as a key proponent for carrying the language of Classical art forward, such that it could endure into the Renaissance era. Filled with fantastic illustrations and insights made possible thanks to Beard’s unparalleled knowledge of the era, Classical Art: From Greece to Rome is as much a survey of the period as it is a springboard for further reading. 

Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, Kathleen Berrin, Simon Martin, Mary Miller, 2013 

Prehispanic Mayan Jade Mask, 6th-9th century A.D.

Prehispanic Mayan Jade Mask, 6th-9th century A.D. Coming to auction on 21 Feb 2023 via Timeline Auctions (est: £2,000 – £3,000).

The Maya civilization was once a dominant force in Mesoamerica, and boasted a rich tradition of artistic and architectural innovation. When you delve into the pages of this book, you’ll step back into the age of the ancient Maya and appreciate the decadence of their courtly art. This fascinating book overflows with spectacular imagery of sculptural creations made from materials like terracotta and jade by the artists of this culture. Authored by decorated art historian, Mary Ellen Miller, this book served to accompany the catalogue for the 2004 exhibition of the same name at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. While the showcase might be long gone, readers of this book can revisit its wonders page by page.  

Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari, 1550

Officially the oldest book on our list, Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists was originally published in 1550. Since reprinted too many times to count, Vasari’s test is still considered a landmark of art historical scholarship. Vasari, an artist himself, was one of the first figures in history to record the biographies of the major painters, sculptors, and architects of his day, which is why his writing is often considered fundamental to the field of art history. Though readers may find his stories are at times embellished and a little exaggerated, Vasari’s Lives makes for a rather enjoyable romp through the big names of the early modern period. 

Michelangelo and The Pope’s Ceiling, Ross King, 2002

Setting a far more intimate tone than the other titles on this list, Ross King’s 2002 novel, Michelangelo and The Pope’s Ceiling, revealed to readers once again how adept the author is at researching his protagonists. The follow-up to King’s successful, Brunelleschi’s Dome (2000), this book tells the tale of the famed Renaissance artist Michelangelo and his extended work on Pope Julius II’s commission to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between 1508-1512. A series of frescoes recognized the world over for their magnificence, Michelangelo’s work was not without its challenges, which King relays compellingly across these pages. A fantastic selection for fans of Michelangelo or those who want an “inside look” at artistic patronage in the sixteenth century, King’s Michelangelo and The Pope’s Ceiling reminds us why even stories originating hundreds of years ago can still be enthralling. 

Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900, V&A Publishing, 2013

Medieval China was renowned for its exceptional legacy of painting. This spectacular volume, Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900, designed to accompany a 2013 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, reveals some of the most striking examples of painted scrolls, screens, and banners pulled from the world’s greatest collections of Chinese art. Throughout are incredible images that reproduce some of the delicacy and detail inherent in these finely painted compositions that span the ages. Complementing this visual tour are essays by some of the leading scholars of Chinese art. Although this is currently out of print, it is available from many resellers. 

The Private Lives of the Impressionists, Sue Roe,2006

Only one of two novels included in our list, Sue Roe’s vibrant book, The Private Lives of the Impressionists, is a narrative that even the most seasoned expert on Impressionism might enjoy. It seeks to examine artists themselves beneath the veil of their celebrated works. Chronicling the lives of major names from Edgar Degas to Camille Pissarro that we associate today with Impressionism, Roe describes a dynamic era in art, and how a group of ambitious, young artists broke with tradition to develop one of the most acclaimed artistic movements of all time. Though not heavily illustrated, Roe’s rich descriptions help to bring some key works by these artists to mind. 

Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, Philip Meggs & Alston Purvis, 2016

Often an undersung facet of art history, graphic design offers an engrossing legacy that often moves in step with major artistic movements. Those seeking an exceptional, almost encyclopedic compendium of design history need to invest in a copy of Megg’s History of Graphic Design. For co-authors Philip Meggs and Alston Purvis, this extensive volume was a landmark when it was first published in the early 1980s. It marked one of the first texts dedicated to the rich history of design. Now, forty years later, Meggs’ history continues to lead the charge in its sixth edition, in part because of the book’s satisfying synthesis of the key trends in design over the centuries. Discussing key figures and movements, from William Morris of the Arts & Crafts Movement, to the streamlined mission of Bauhaus design, and from font frills to innovations in advertising, Megg’s History of Graphic Design has it all for the design fan.

The First Pop Age: Painting and Subjectivity in the Art of Hamilton, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Richter, and Ruscha, Hal Foster, 2014

You’ve probably heard of Andy Warhol, but what about the other artists that added to the revolution that was twentieth-century Pop Art?  Famed art writer Hal Foster’s gripping 2014 book, The First Pop Age, scrutinizes the core contributors to the movement through an incisive dive into their motivations. Added to his observations is a bevy of beautiful illustrations of works by Warhol as well as Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Hamilton, Gerhard Richter, and Ed Ruscha that allow the reader to grasp a new perspective on the depth of these dynamic figures. Always introspective in his writing, Foster also raises some valuable questions for his reader, transforming The First Pop Age into a contemplative read that forces valuable questions about today as much as it does about the twentieth century. 

African-American Art, Sharon Patton, 1998

African-American art is a vast field that incorporates a wide variety of media and messages. Sharon Patton’s exquisite survey, African-American Art, however, distills some of the best examples of African-American art from 18th-century quilts by anonymous makers to the contemporary masterworks of Romare Beardon into a smooth and satisfying synthesis that can inform both the novice and the expert in the field. Working to contextualize key moments of artistic production against a historical backdrop of major moments – from the oppression of slavery to the transformation of communities during the twentieth-century Great Migration – Patton carries her readers through each major landmark with the support of spectacular artworks that become only more captivating with the knowledge of the history behind them. 

The Story of Art, E.H. Gombrich, 1995

The Story of Art, E.H. Gombrich, 1994.

The Story of Art, E.H. Gombrich, 1994. Sold for £10 via Chaucer Auctions (June 2022).

Almost as iconic as Vasari’s Lives of the Artists is E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, which changed the conversation about art history upon its original publication in 1950. Rather than offer a sweeping look at art, Gombrich dives deep into individual works to tell the story of their making. Today’s reader might chafe at the focus on male Western artists, however, Gombrich’s premise to design a book that spoke to the non-specialist makes its tone and content engaging for all who read it. 

Art: The Definitive Visual Guide, Andrew Graham Dixon, 2008

With a title like, Art: The Definitive Guide, readers might think they’ve hit the jackpot when it comes to a single comprehensive history of art in one volume. While it might not cover all of art history, Andrew Graham Dixon’s massive 2008 book nevertheless offers an enticing look at works by hundreds of artists created over 30,000 years. Beyond its comprehensiveness, what sets Dixon’s test apart is the impressive volume of supporting illustration, all discussed in approachable language to prime the reader to what to learn more. Readers will gain a strong grounding in the key themes and movements from the prehistoric world to the contemporary one and are also treated to deep dives into some of the most central works of all time. 

What Great Paintings Say: 100 Masterpieces in Detail, Rainer and Rose-Marie Hagen, 2020 

One of the most recent publications on our list, Rainer and Rose-Marie Hagen’s 2020 book, What Great Paintings Say: 100 Masterpieces in Detail, places the reader in the mind of the art historian as they sleuth through the symbolism and stories of some of history’s celebrated compositions. Detailed images of these artworks ranging from Michelangelo to Otto Dix afford the reader the chance to home in on these secret aspects as they read along with the authors’ points. Transforming how the reader looks at art, What Great Paintings Say helps even the novice appreciator of art gain tools for decoding and reading works for the future.  

Ways of Seeing, John Berger, 1972

Berger’s Ways of Seeing is a seminal text in the field of art history. The book is based on a television series of the same name, which sought to question traditional ways of understanding art and its relationship to society. In Ways of Seeing, Berger argues that art has been separated from everyday life, and that it is often viewed in a privileged and detached way. He posits that art is a product of society and that it reflects the values and beliefs of the culture that produced it. Through his analysis of various artworks, Berger encourages readers to consider the social and historical context in which art is created and consumed. The book remains an important reference for those interested in understanding the ways in which art is perceived and interpreted.

Building an Art History Bookshelf

Between the artful design, expert commentary, and often exquisite illustrations throughout, these books will be difficult for readers to put down once they begin. At the same time, many of these books are also structured for casual reading. While Ross King’s or Sue Roe’s novels are so gripping that you might just keep reading from cover to cover, our other titles are designed so that you can read small sections intermittently and at your own pace, perhaps over your morning cup of coffee or while winding down for the evening. Any of these titles can help you develop your art appreciation, so we invite you to sit back, relax, and crack open one of our exceptional art history titles.