The 10 Best Art History Books
A Brief History Of Art History
While it primarily focused on artists' biographies, it is widely considered the seminal text for the history of Renaissance-era art.
Some of the first known art historical writing was by a Roman author called Pliny the Elder, who lived in the 1st century C.E. Pliny wrote primarily about science, though he also catalogued the development of Greek painting and sculpture in his multi-volume encyclopedic work "Natural History," first published in the year 77.
Following Pliny, the next notable work in the art history canon didn't arrive until nearly 500 years later, in the form of the book "The Record of the Classification of Old Painters" by Chinese author Xie He, circa 550. In it, he highlighted the work and style of writers whose calligraphy was art unto itself, and also enumerated the Six Principles of Painting. In doing so, he composed what is considered the first published work dealing with the methodology of studying art, as opposed to just recording the lives and works of artists themselves.
The first text to attempt to record the history of art as a whole is "The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects," which Giorgio Vasari, an Italian painter and architect himself, composed in 1550. While it primarily focused on artists' biographies, it is widely considered the seminal text for the history of Renaissance-era art.
Vasari's work was a hot topic of discussion for centuries in Europe, though it was not without its critics. A school of thought led by German historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann arose in the mid-18th century that felt Vasari's approach was far too focused on the artists themselves, with not enough attention paid to their art. Winckelmann is considered an early father of art criticism thanks to his approach, outlined in his books "History of Ancient Art" and "Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks," circa 1764 and 1765, respectively. The former boasts the first recorded appearance of the phrase "art history" in print.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, various European scholars and historians expanded upon Winckelmann's approach, melding criticism and analysis with history in their assessments of artistic movements past and present. This approach was formalized by another German, the scholar and professor Heinrich Wölfflin, in three books published during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wölfflin is widely known as the father of art history for his contributions, which elevated the study of art to a highly respected discipline worldwide.
A major development in art history came in the wake of World War II, when photographic technology began allowing for much more widespread reproduction of images of famous artworks. The improvement and availability of reproduction technology helped spread the study of art beyond elite institutions and cement art history's place in curriculums everywhere, for scholars of all ages.
Varying Approaches to the Study of Art
To this day, there are many varying schools of thought of how best to approach this study of art and its history. The most formal and scientific of these approaches belongs to Heinrich Wölfflin, who prescribed a detailed, methodical approach to understanding any given work of art in the context of its creation. His methodology focused on three principles or approaches; psychology, comparison, and nationhood.
To this day, there are many varying schools of thought of how best to approach this study of art and its history.
While Wölfflin's method included the study of the psychology of the artist, the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, took things a step further in his approach to art history. Freud used an artist's works to conduct a reverse-analysis of the artist's psyche, analyzing a variety of symbolic and stylistic motifs to determine hidden biographical information about them. The most notable work of his in this vein is a book about Leonardo da Vinci, who Freud guessed was a homosexual based on his paintings. Though controversial, the psychoanalytic approach to art history remains popular today.
The French literary theorist Roland Barthes wrote extensively about semiotics, or the study of signs, including about how the study of art can be enhanced by employing its ways of thinking. In Barthes' view, any work of art can be assessed by the signifiers it contains and their inherent references. He also wrote about separating the interpretation of works of art from the identities of their creators, most notably in 1968's "The Death of the Author."
Even this small sampling of ways of thinking about art contains many opposing viewpoints, as well as some that may complement or build on one another. In truth, there is no right way to interpret art or study its history. The best art historians and historical texts will draw on the ideas and methodologies of a wide range of thinkers in order to offer balanced perspectives and useful interpretations.
The Importance Of Learning About Art
Whether you're a reluctant student or just a curious scholar, it's important to remember that there are plenty of good reasons to study art history. For starters, learning about art helps you learn about the world. By developing the vocabulary to analyze art, you learn how to speak about the visual world in general, a skill that will come in handy in situations as diverse as deciding what color to paint a house to describing a meeting place to a friend.
Reflecting on what's come before you will never steer you wrong when you're trying to make a decision or come up with a solution to any one of life's myriad problems.
Studying art also helps you think more creatively. By looking at the history of artistic expression and perspective from ancient times up to the present, you're inherently learning new ways to express yourself, whether visually or simply in your speech or thoughts. Reflecting on what's come before you will never steer you wrong when you're trying to make a decision or come up with a solution to any one of life's myriad problems.
Not only is the study of art a way to build one's own visual vocabulary and think outside the box, but it can also help improve your understanding of history in general. So much art has been made about politics, revolution, war, and historical figures. If reading a history textbook doesn't sound like your ideal method of learning about the past, consider looking at art from the period instead. There's always more to learn.