Art History Books You Must Read

March 26, 2020

Lovers of books, this is a lucky day for you. Today, Widewalls is focusing on bringing to you the list of the most important, charming and influential art history books. We may be living in an era of digitalization, but still there are number of us out there, that still enjoy the sound of the page turning, the smell of a fresh book, the notes written down in the margins, and that feeling that somehow you are not alone if you look at your bookcase, from where familiar titles reflect confront and knowledge.

From its beginning, art was always on the side of the explorers and adventures in life. Exploring life, questioning accepted values, and aiming to bring forward new points of view on the world around us, artists and authors often went hand in hand. Many of the art movements, especially in the period of the rise of Abstract art, needed critics and philosophers, to help with the use of the written language the spreading of new art trends and philosophies.

The list that follows is comprised of some of the capital art history books, and some, not so known, but the choice was made with the focus on presenting books that cover topics concerning curating, design, history of art, and influential books that helped with the development of today’s theory.

Here is our pick of ten art history books you must read.

You can also check out our favorite urban art books and photography theory books.

Featured image: Important Berlin Bookshops – Walter Konig. Image via

The Books that Shaped Art History: From Gombrich and Greenberg to Alpers and Krauss

A pioneering volume, The Books that Shaped Art History: From Gombrich and Greenberg to Alpers and Krauss is a concise and brilliant study of the discipline of Art History. It provides a detailed roadmap of the field by analyzing the importance of several of the most important works of art history. Each chapter, with writers including John Elderfield, Boris Groys, Susie Nash and Richard Verdi, analyzes a single major book, taking into account its premises and arguments, discussing its position within the field of art history and commenting upon its significance in the context both of its initial reception and its legacy. From Émile Mâle’s magisterial study of thirteenth-century French art, first published in 1898, to Hans Belting’s provocative Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, the book provides a concise and insightful overview of the history of art, told through its most enduring literature.

‘A thrilling account of the history of art in the 20th century … an expertly guided tour along a rather marvelous scenic route’ - The Guardian

Twentieth-Century American Art (Oxford History of Art)

If twentieth-century American art is your area of interest, then this book will provide you with a deeper knowledge of the rise and the development of the art of this period. This exciting book offers an insight and explores the relationship between American art, museums and audiences in the century that became known as the “ American Century”. Extending beyond New York, Twentieth-Century American Art also looks into the development of feminism art in Los Angeles in the 1970’s; the Black art movement; the expansion of galleries and art schools. Examining one of the most important artists of that time, such as Andy Warhol, Laurie Anderson, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, the book also examines the succession of art movements and different styles that reflected the extreme changes in American culture and society.

"Up-to-date overview that includes the often-excluded women and Black artists of the first half of the 20th century. Useful contextualization of the period, especially in regard to marginalized artists." - Leslie Ava Shaw, New School University

Art in Theory 1900 - 2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas

Art in Theory 1900 - 2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas offers a complete collection of the 20th century’s numerous theories about art. Including the new and updated research and significant contributions made in art theory since the 1990’s, the book includes writings by critics, philosophers, politicians, and literary figures. Divided into eight categories, the authors offer commentary on subjects ranging from Symbolism to Post-Modernism and include discussions of various different topics like globalization, African art, gender studies, and contemporary performance and installation. Suitable for beginners as well as advanced students and scholars, this book is a comprehensive survey into the world of the theory of the modern period.

History of Beauty edited by Umberto Eco

Since its publishing in 2004, the book, by a world famous author, Umberto Eco, has gained great critical success. Discussing and exploring the question what beauty is, this book offers an in-depth analysis of the history of beauty in Western culture. Researching the meaning, its history and nature of beauty, the book History of Beauty also offers a lavished number of illustrations of paintings and sculptures and lengthy quotations from philosophers and writers. Looking at different angles and approaches to the idea of beautiful, Umberto Eco, focuses on exploring and bringing to the front different ideas of both philosophers, thinkers, and artists as well. This book must be viewed as a road map of a journey into the world’s most acclaimed thinkers, all focused on exploring the history of Western art as it relates to the topic of beauty.

Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes

Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography is a short book published in 1980 by the French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes. In a deeply personal discussion of the lasting emotional effect of certain photographs, Barthes examines and presents photography as being outside of the codes of language or culture, acting on the body as much as on the mind. At the same time a eulogy to Barthes’ late mother, the book explores the nature and essence of photography, and along with Susan Sontag’s book On Photography, this book is one of the most influential books of theory on the subject.

Ways of Seeing: Based on the BBC Television Series by John Berger

Thirty years on, John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing is still an important primary textbook, not just for the ones studying or interested in fine art, but in any of the humanities from literature to cinema. In its seven chapters, Berger critiques and explores what art was to humans in the past, aiming to reach the understanding of the art and its language today. Focusing on exploring the way we look at paintings, this book offers an interesting insight into ideas and theories that have since then gone and developed even further.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin

The essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin, published in 1936, has been influential across humanities, especially in the fields of cultural studies, media theory, architectural theory, and art history. The essay deals with the questions concerning the value and nature of art in juxtaposition to an industrial, materialistic, and modernizing world. In it, Benjamin discusses the concept of authenticity, particularly in application to reproduction. Analyzing the shift and the changes in society’s values over time, Benjamin goes on to describe the alteration in taste and style in art history. The essay was first of all written for a small circle of academics to position art in the sphere of mass media, but over the years it became one of the most influential writings in art history, that helped to influence and shape ideas and thoughts of some of the most influential thinkers today.

The Duchamp Dictionary by Thomas Girst, Illustrated by Luke Frost and Therese Vandiling

The Duchamp Dictionary does what so many before it were not able to do, and that is to give us an insightful look into the life and thoughts of one of the most important artists of art history who still holds great allure for many of contemporary artists worldwide. Marcel Duchamp is largely considered to be one of the founding fathers of modern art, which helped change the way of looking at art. Most books on Duchamp have been hyper-theoretical and have rarely represented the artist in an accessible way. The author of the book, Thomas Girst, captured the essence of the dry humor of the artists and created an accessible way to understand one of the most important artist’s minds. This book explores the life and work through short, alphabetical dictionary entries that introduce his legacy in a clear and engaging way. Including close to 200 entries on the most important and significant artworks, relationships and ideas in Duchamp’s life, the book captures us from its cover. The illustrations that follow the text, complement Girst’s playful approach to one of the most influential artist today.

Design as Art (Penguin Modern Classics) by Bruno Munari

One of the last surviving members of the futurist generation, Bruno Munari’s Design as Art is an illustrated journey into the artistic possibilities of modern design. One of the most influential and inspirational designers of all time, Munari’s ideas about design helped to develop and promote this form of expression. A highly entertaining book, it offers an insight into Munari’s ideas about visual, graphic, and industrial design. Made up of short essays, the book confronts the reader to think about the functionality of design and its relationship to the many different objects that we are confronted with every day.

"One of the most influential designers of the twentieth century . . . Munari has encouraged people to go beyond formal conventions and stereotypes by showing them how to widen their perceptual awareness." - International Herald Tribune

Show Time: The 50 Most Influential Exhibitions of Contemporary Art. Edited by Jens Hoffmann

The monumental book Show Time: The 50 Most Influential Exhibitions of Contemporary Art explores the recent history of exhibition making, looking at the radical shifts that have taken place in the practice of curating contemporary art over the last 20 years. The editor of the book, Jens Hoffmann (The Jewish Museum in New York) concentrated the analysis in this book on 50 art exhibitions that primarily took place post-1990. This date is significant since it marks the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the globalization of the art world. Each exhibition targeted, ranging from art exhibitions to major events such as Biennials and art events have left a profound impact in the world of curating and in the understanding of the globalized art world. Including the number of international curatorial practices, the book is divided into nine themed sections, arranged thematically rather than chronologically. Topics include exhibitions in public spaces; the artist as a curator; multidisciplinary exhibitions; the international art biennial and its role in the shaping contemporary art; sociopolitical issues; and underrepresented art and artists. If you are searching for a book that will provide you with a crash course into the curatorial practices today, then this is a book for you.

All images used for illustrative purposes only.