In praise of art books

Running out of things to read?  Do you ever have the sneaky feeling that books might be overrated?  Well, for some variation at the margin try reading art books.  That’s right, books about art.  Not “how to draw,” but books about the content and history of art.  Some of them you might call art history, but that term makes me a little nervous.  Just go into a good art museum, and look at what they are stocking in their bookstore.  Many of them will be picture books, rather than art history in the narrower, more scholarly sense of that word.

Art books offer the following advantages:

1. They are among the best ways to learn history, politics, and yes science too (advances in art often followed advances in science and technology).  Even economic history.  Since the main focus is the art, they will give you “straight talk” about the historical period in question, rather than trying to organize the narrative around some vague novelty that only the peer reviewers care about.

2. They are often very pretty to look at.  You also feel you can read them in small bites, or you can read only a single chapter or section.  The compulsion to finish is relatively weak, a good thing.  You can feel you have consumed them without reading them at all, a true liberation, which in turns means you will read them as you wish to.

3. They have passed through different filters than most other books, precisely because they are often “sold into the market” on the basis of their visuals, or copyright permissions, or connection with a museum exhibit, or whatever.  Thus they introduce variation into your reading life, compared to say traditional academic tomes or “trade books,” which increasingly are about gender, race, and DT in an ever-more homogenized fashion.

4. They are among the best ways of learning about the sociology of creativity and also “the small group theory” of history.

5. These books tend not to be politically contentious, or if they are it is in a superficial way that is easily brushed off.  (Note there is a whole subgenre of art books, from theory-laden, left-wing presses, with weird covers, displayed in small, funky Manhattan or Brooklyn bookstores where you can’t believe they can make the rent, where politics is all they are about.  Avoid those.)

6. A bookstore of art books is almost always excellent, no matter how small.  It’s not about comprehensiveness, rather you can always find numerous books there of interest.

7. Major reviewing outlets either do not cover too many art books, or they review them poorly and inaccurately.  That suggests your “marginal best book” in the art books category is really quite good, because you didn’t have an easy means to discover it.

8. You might even wish to learn about art.

9. This whole genre is not about assembling a reading list of “the best art books.”  Go to a good public library, or museum bookstore, and start grabbing titles.  The best museum bookstore I know of is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

10. It is also a very good introduction to the histories and cultures of locations such as China and India, where “straight up” political histories numb you with a succession of names, periods, and dynasties, only barely embedded in contexts that make any sense to you.


My mom always bought them at Museums. I have them now. Yes, good suggestion.

My mom's illustrated Candide was no doubt better.

I have visited the book store at the National Gallery in DC about 50 times over the last 30 years, it is way better now than it used to be.

Too often dismissed as coffee table books, these publications are labor intensive and scholarly, but with an aim towards accessibility. A joy to browse and/or read.

Consumed without reading, true liberation - the treasured wisdom of an infovore.

With the premise that all art before (and most after) ca 1850 was pure propaganda it really is interesting, good suggestion

That is not correct. As any art historian will tell you.

Excellent points.

I used to buy coffee table art books before the visual Internet. Obviously, now it's cheap to call up any image I'm interested in, but art books have the advantage that they show you a lot of images you didn't know you were interested in.

For serendipity and random browsing, the web still beats books.

If you still like books, the web STILL wins since you can download them for free legally from the Met:

Tom, unfortunately every single image on the internet is lighted internet style.

If you buy an art book, you can see early renaissance paintings in afternoon light, in morning light, in candle light, if you look for early renaissance painters on the internet you see them all in internet light, unless you are really skilled at modulating the light scheme of your computer screen.

Maybe you are good at that but most people are not.

Cue all the econ nerds social signaling their apparent sophistication in the arts. This elite posturing is why Trump got elected.

Where do you think Trump got his ideas for gilded faucets in his mansions? From Florentine history, natch! Don’t sell your man short.

Any recommendations? All I see is an anti-recommendation to avoid left-wing Brooklyn art shops because they hold unacceptable political opinions (what is with today's polarization?). My coffee table could use a couple pounds worth of art love.

My top recommendation:

Gombrich. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon 1950.

Good suggestion. But note that Gombrich updated the original 1950 edition sixteen times before his death in 2001. The latest update was in 1995. You probably want to purchase the latest edition which is widely available online and not expensive.

Thank you. I had noted it and discounted it as being (a) irrelevant to me and (b) the sort of detail that Mr. Venti could probably cope with unaided by water wings.

Phooey. Most of the art I'm interested in was produced before 1950 anyway. I like first editions, the author's first thoughts (especially if it is Gombrich, who was a great writer) are usually the best ones.

+1. I also learned a lot from Gombrich's "Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation".

Yes Yes Yes! One of the GREAT books, period.

Goya, by Robert Hughes. More of a biography than an "art book" but there are lots of pictures included as well. Lots of great information on Spain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a region I didn't know much about for that time period. Fascinating from beginning to end.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry. Not even sure how the writing is, I can never get past the gorgeous pictures.

Not until reading that book did I realize how thoroughly benighted priest-ridden Spain really was.

Kristian Davies, "Orientalists: Western Artists in Arabia, the Sahara, Persia" magnificent book. Out of print, but available, not cheap, totally worth it. One of my favorites. I second the Gombrich books. Fabulous.

All sorts of wonderful art books (and many others) available secondhand at remarkably low prices on sites like - a few scuff marks don’t matter...

Yes, this definitely. I just saw two old books on Goya and Giotto for $1 dollar each at a used book store I was at the other day. Amazing value. Just opening up these books on a bad day is an inspiration. I think part of the value of great art, literature and film (maybe even video games?) is to take you away to another world, possibly a more beautiful one but almost always a more interesting one. And books like this are an easy way to do it.

Auction house catalogues are often very good (Sotheby's, Christies, Phillips, Bonham's, etc). They offer not only first class images but frequently good commentary, plus the pre-auction estimates of value. They also contain art that you will never see in a museum because they are in private collections. If you visit the auction house and are viewed by the experts as a potential client or simply someone who is knowledgeable and interested, they will give you a catalogue.

Of course, the same images are now available at the auction house internet site. I find it a very good way to stay abreast of not only contemporary art trends, but also modern and classical art.

Finally, of course you can buy a traditional art book. Abe's Books is a good source because it contains the widest selecdtion and if you find there what you want, you can often find the same cheaper elsewhere online (E-bay or the equivalent). Quality art books retain their value (and often appreciate) much more than standard fiction and non-fiction books.

My university had a full-credit, full-semester course called Art Appreciation. No, the students didn't draw or paint, but only studied art. Do colleges and universities still offer such a course? As anyone who has visited The Louvre knows, it's an enormous facility with such a large inventory of art that it makes little sense to visit the place: one would have to go days, weeks, to do the art justice. Tourists flock to the place just to see the Mona Lisa, the lines for which are much too long to justify the short viewing of the small painting. Unless one plans to devote days to touring The Louvre, don't bother would be my advice. Buy a book or books (or view artwork on the internet).

"Thus they introduce variation into your reading life, compared to say traditional academic tomes or “trade books,” which increasingly are about gender, race, and DT in an ever-more homogenized fashion."

I notice a tone of skepticism which makes inclusivity of underprivileged groups very difficullt

Isn't that a basic problem with art books? They contain art. Artists have usually had to eat, which means either selling art or having a patron. People don't tend to buy pieces which upset them, so the subject matter is likely skewed to rich people, pleasant scenes, etc.

For example, if we looked at American art in the first half of the 19th century, how much would we find out about slavery? (This is an honest question, and anyone who wants to suggest a particular art book on this topic, please do.)

If you have children about the house leave art books in places where they can easily access them whenever they feel the impulse. It's never too early to introduce them to art since they already have an innate interest in creating their own.

Comic books > art books. A person who can regale the numerous battles of Hulk and Wolverine show a much higher degree of cultured sophistication and erudition than those who prattle on about last century German expressionism.

Any thoughts on dictionaries of quotations?

Re #5: I have a pet theory that most of these places are just trendy event venues by night (particularly weddings) and have to go along with the theater of being an unprofitable independent bookstore by day to maintain the cultural cachet needed to sell out the venue. I’m sure the day business is more fun to run too.

Excellent advice! I'm often pleasantly surprised by the depth of the writing in books I'd be happy to buy just for the prints.

And to expand on point #1, change hits all aspects of a society on one wavefront, but with art that change is intentionally made visible to the eye. And so a work of art is a powerful tool for understanding the times that created it.

Tyler's list of reasons really has many echoes of the reasons of this New Yorker essay 'Here's a Really Great Idea'

You forget one reason for buying art books - signalling. They are ideal for the sort of person who cares more for how books look on the shelf or coffee table than for what's inside the book.

It;s far from obvious that he forgot this reason, it seems much more likely that this reason was utterly irrelevant to the topic.

Dumb asses like Arentino think that “coffee table” books are meant to be left lying around to signal cultural capital and aesthetic virtue. Not entirely. They are perfect for coffee tables because you don’t have to read them cover to cover AND they are large. Why large? So the plates of the details of the art can be larger.

That's very insightful...perhaps you'd like to see my etchings?

I find topic histories in general- art, religion, economics - to be superior to general histories.

"...and yes science too." You mean 19th Century science? Are you a Trump supporter? Making this claim suggests you have embraced his concept of what truth is.

Great suggestion. Another benefit: they remind you about an exhibition or great museum visit, especially from travels. Yes, experiencing the actual art is far better, but it's not practical to revisit.

Would love a list of TC's specific recommendations for art books. Also, thanks to everyone who posted recommendations!

I can't tell you what TC's recommendations would be ---- but I don't think he reads these comments or reacts to comments often, so I will offer a recommendation or two.

Paul Johnson's History of Art is way better now than it was when it was published a few decades ago, he mentions hundreds of paintings in the book, paintings that were not reproduced in the book , but which are now easily available with a quick Google search.

It is a little work to read through,, but he was rich, he had friends who owned great works of art from earlier centuries, and he saw more great art in real settings than almost any other art writer, and he worked hard on that book.

The Gombrich recommendation (Art and Illusion) above is very good - read and reread what Gombrich had to say about Constable, then skim the rest of the book: and above all, fall in love with one or two artists, the way hippies used to fall in love with Tolkien (after all life is short and we do not expect anyone to be all that full of inspiration BUT SOME ARTISTS ARE full of inspiration that surprises even the luckiest of us, those of us who have seen the most and seen it when it was at its best .... but I wander) ....

A tad off-topic, but the bookstore at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is more enjoyable than the actual museum.

Old art books have the advantage of old encyclopedias - the text was written by very learned people, without the later dumbing down or confusion about the mission. Thus, if you have a set of britannicas from the fifties and a set from the eighties, say, you keep the older one.

The local library got rid of all its art books, because "they hadn't been checked out." (How many people ever check out large art books? As though "checking out" was some alchemical process that conferred value on an $75 book of prints.) No art maven, I scooped up a few of them, not so much the glossy coffee table books as those that had a midcentury object flair: the Horizon book of the Renaissance, Time/Life "The World of Vermeer," etc.

T.C. has referenced Sister Wendy before, and her books have the same enthusiasm and appealing, just-enough quality as Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts.

Here in the southern half of the United States, the women at midcentury were very fond of collecting coffee table books of the architecture and decorative arts of America (not simply plantation homes, but early America in toto - you must understand that the South is far more patriotic about the USA than the North - you will find more bunting throughout the South, on the Fourth, than anywhere else in America). I inherited a great many of these books from several sources, and felt exasperated at making room for them - but now I'm glad I have them - they seem more valuable as a record of loss with the passage of time.

As adults know, one has to have the curiosity to learn about such things. One of the outstanding qualities of the left is their lack of curiosity about anything but ideology.

You know Tyler, we are not all idiots.

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