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Getting started - essential books for the new student

— October 2011

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

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PP Rubens, Allegory of the Effects of War, 1638. From Mirror of the World by Julian Bell

University lecturers recommend the best books for new students

As we enter the new academic year, Cassone thought it would be a good idea for new students of the visual arts to see what some of our writers, all experts in their fields, would recommend as essential reading.

You should also note that as a Cassone reader, you are being offered a special discount on some of these titles.

Professor David Howarth of Edinburgh University recommends Julian Bell's  Mirror of the World, A New History of Art (Thames and Hudson, 2007, ISBN: 978 0500 287545).

This remarkable book is more successful than any other 'world' history of art in giving due balance to non-occidental art. For example, it makes the enlightening point, without labouring it, that Chinese civilization existed hundreds of years before it is possible to describe the West as civilized. More challengingly, it shows why Chinese art (and of course the art of other civilizations) must be studied by the West if we are to understand how the human spirit has expressed itself most effectively in the visual arts. I also liked the way what was being created in the West was interwoven with achievements in the Americas, China and India so that the claim that this is a 'world' art history is indeed borne out by the whole approach to the task in hand. Whilst being quite undaunted in the face of the icons of art, and always able, indeed, to do justice to the over-familiar and to avoid tired clichés, Bell's choice of illustrations is intriguing, brave,  idiosyncratic, and often unpredictable. I especially like the running commentaries to the illustrations, which offer a coda or marginalia to the main text. Although this book is going to be an intellectual challenge for beginners, it will provide a most welcome stimulus and incentive. Even in those areas where I have been teaching for 30 years, Bell often made me stop and think afresh.  I learned a great deal from this very special book.

Mirror of the World by Julian Bell is published by Thames & Hudson (RRP £18.95) – to order your copy at the special price of £14.95 including UK mainland delivery (overseas costs available on request) please call their distributor Littlehampton Book Services on 01903 828503, quoting ‘TH152’. Offer is subject to availability.


Prof. Richard Woodfield, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Birmingham University and editor of the Journal of Art Historiographyrecommends E.H. Gombrich’s  The Story of Art  (Phaidon, 16th edn., 1995. ISBN: 978-0714825847).

Despite its age this book still represents the best European introduction to landmarks in the development of the history of art. Its straightforward language conceals a sophisticated strategy for approaching the subject. It ignores traditional stylistic categories to focus on the functions of visual imagery within different historical and cultural milieux. It concentrates on what the human viewer might make of the particular artworks that it examines and avoids academic jargon. It is not a textbook but it does have a useful bibliography, timelines and maps. It is beautifully illustrated.

The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich, in the paperback edition, is offered to Cassone readers at a special price: £19.07 inc postage. Enter the code CA30ATduring checkout. Offer ends November 5. Link:


Dr Gillian Whiteley, Senior Lecturer in Critical and Historical Studies, School of the Arts, English and Drama, Loughborough University recommends Art: Key Contemporary Thinkers, edited by Diarmuid Costello and Jonathan Vickery (Berg, 2007 ISBN: 978-1845203207)

I am suggesting this as I always like to recommend directories, dictionaries and glossaries at the start of undergraduate study. These are great for looking up names, theories, concepts and terminology. And there is a lot of it! One of the most difficult things for today's undergraduates (studying art and/or art history/theory) is that – regardless of whether they are (or want to be) art historians, or critics, theorists, curators, studio painters, community artists or cultural activists – knowing about the key current ideas and thinking on art history as well as on contemporary art is crucially important. Costello and Vickery's book has collated the significant thinkers for us and commissioned expert authors to provide succinct summaries of their contribution to 'art thinking', and helpful bibliographies. The book also has a very handy 'glossary of key terms' – so a perfect starting place, useful for dipping into over the course of an undergraduate (and postgraduate) taught degree.


Dr Tom Huhn, Chair, BFA Visual & Critical Studies and Chair, Art HistorySchool of Visual Arts, NYC recommends Thomas Crow’s  The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent (published in the USA by  Yale University Press 1996 ISBN 978-0300106831 and in the UK by Laurence King ISBN:978-1856694261)

This is a terrific book because it accomplishes so much in under 200 pages, and is very generously illustrated throughout.  It is first of all a very good introduction to the politics and culture of America and Europe in the period from the mid 1950s until the early 1970s.  It thereby also shows how the art of the period is at once both reflection and catalyst for much larger social concerns.  It demonstrates the interconnections between West-coast, East-coast and European art.  And finally, and most successfully, it manages to survey a great quantity of artworks while always showing their interconnections.


Professor Elizabeth Rankin, University of Auckland recommends Hugh Honour and John Fleming’s World History of Art (Laurence King Publishing, ISBN 978-1856693158),H.W. and A.F. Janson’s History of Art (Pearson Education, ISBN 978-0205685172) and Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (Wadsworth Publishing; 13th edition, 2009 ISBN: 978-0495573609).

With so many general art history books to choose from, I find it difficult to select a single title to serve as a primary reference for an undergraduate survey course. Nonetheless, I do encourage all my students to purchase one of a range of possibilities, particularly picking out the most recent editions of Hugh Honour and John Fleming’sWorld History of Art, H.W. and A.F. Janson’s History of Art and Gardner's Art Through the Ages – all well illustrated and all now aiming to be more inclusive than their earlier editions. I stress, however, that students should not consider buying another if they already own one (even if they do not have the most recent edition) because these tomes do tend to cover similar ground, although they each have characteristics to recommend them. I particularly like Honour and Fleming’s text boxes on ‘Sources and Documents’ and ‘Context’, for example.

Rather than purchasing another general text, I believe students would be better spending their precious dollars on a more specialist book in an area of interest which takes them beyond the grand development of art that is necessarily the focus of general books, and can form the beginning of an art library. But I believe that one general text will prove useful, as a place where they can read ahead in preparation for upcoming lectures (I remain something of an optimist!) and as a handy reference book to have on their desks throughout their studies. Of course today’s students may find this a very old-fashioned idea, as they probably rather turn to Google when they have reference queries. It is noteworthy that Gardner now offers ArtStudy Online: like Cassone itself, it acknowledges the digital focus of contemporary readers, and suggests that we may all end up consulting our computer screens or Kindles in future.

[Note for British readers: Gardner’s Art Through the Ages can be difficult to obtain in the UK.]

Laurence King are offering our readers a 35% reduction in the published price of Hugh Honour and John Fleming’s World History of Art. Please visit the Laurence King website and use the following code when purchasing the book:LKPSTUDENT3511



Prof. Larry Silver, University of Pennsylvania recommends Erwin Panofsky’s Meaning in the Visual Arts  (University of Chicago Press, 1982,ISBN: 978-0226645513)

During the Second World War an American movie director made a propaganda film for the war effort called Why We Fight. In the field of art history probably the closest summation to how and why we do what we do was penned by Erwin Panofsky, probably the greatest Anglophone art historian of the past century. ‘The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline’ remains very much in print in a Panofsky anthology, Meaning in the Visual Arts (University of Chicago Press, 1982), though published originally in 1940. While some of its language seems dated today, it successfully locates art history in the humanities, as it distinguishes humanistic or historical knowledge from scientific knowledge. Panofsky also deftly shows how one does research and how the visual artefact and its documentation fruitfully and mutually inform each other. The eternal dialogue between history and theory, between perception and knowledge, between artworks and tools, informs the intricate toggling between past and present. No better introduction to ‘why we study’ great art of the past has ever been written.


 Paul Bonaventura, Senior Research Fellow in Fine Art Studies, University of Oxford Special Lecturer in Fine Art, Magdalen College, Oxford, recommends Geoff Dyer’s Anglo-English Attitudes: Essays, Reviews, Misadventures (Orbit & Abacus, 2001. ISBN 978-0349111957)

Where in a bookshop do you go to find an anthology of essays like Geoff Dyer's Anglo-English Attitudes? To the section reserved for cultural studies perhaps? Or should you hunt under specific subject areas, like art or literature or music or sport? Even its publisher Abacus seems at a loss to know where to position the book and opts for the generalist 'non-fiction' label to free itself of the dilemma. Well, don't let the confusion with pigeonholing deter you from your search. Anglo-English Attitudes is a masterpiece of contextual analysis and a 'must-read' for all undergraduate art historians. Think John Berger's Ways of Seeing for the 21st century.


Dr  Maria H. Loh, Lecturer, Department of History of Art, University College London and Reviews Editor, Oxford Art Journal  recommends Locating Renaissance Art, edited by Carol Richardson (Yale University Press in  association with The Open University, 2007, ISBN: 978-0300121889), Renaissance Theory edited by Robert Williams and James Elkins (Routledge, ISBN 978-0415960465)

I would put this book high on my list. Michael Cole and Stephen Campbell (Thames and Hudson, 2011) have also recently put out useful Renaissance primers. And the volume edited by Robert Williams and James Elkins, Renaissance Theory (Routledge, 2008) should be there too.

Locating Renaissance Art, edited by Carol Richardson, published by Yale University Press in association with the Open University, 2007, ISBN: 978-0300121889, full price £19.95, is offered  to Cassone readers at £15.95. Visit the Yale website and when purchasing enter code Y1028. Offer expires 1 April 2012.

For one month onlyCassone readers can get 20% off any Routledge book bought online at   Just add discount code COCS11 at checkout. Be sure to click ‘update cart’ to apply the discount. Offer expires end of October.


Dr Julian Freeman, Sussex Coast College, Hastings recommends Pam Meecham and Julie Sheldon’s  Modern Art – A Critical Introduction  (Routledge, 2004. ISBN: 978-0415281942)

This was a surprise when I found it on my supervisor's bookshelf, 40 years after my first degree (there were never books like this one in 1973) and several months into my doctorate. I was interested primarily because I was writing about the business of exhibiting early modern British Art of the period 1900–20 during the 1970s, when expertise was the next best thing to enthusiasm, and the best texts were undoubtedly exhibition catalogues. Meecham and Sheldon do an excellent job, but undergrads need to develop a sense of wariness – the essays here aren't always gospel. What they  are  is provocative, and some of their subjects are just plain one-sided. If that's a way to develop one's own critical sensibility, so be it: this book will take any reader a long way into the playground, and with an open mind one can go far with this, from bias to certainty and back.

For one month onlyCassonereaders can get 20% off any Routledge book bought online at   Just add discount code COCS11 at checkout. Be sure to click ‘update cart’ to apply the discount. To view a collection of Routledge’s latest art titles please browse the Routledge catalogue.Please note this offer can only be redeemed online at until 31 October 2011. If you have any questions please contact [email protected]


Dr Juilee Decker, Associate Professor of Art History & Museum Studies, Georgetown College, Georgetown, KY USA recommends Dana Arnold’s Art History: A Very Short Introduction  (Oxford University Press, 2004 – widely translated and available).

Because I teach in the liberal arts environment where students come from varying fields of study (fine arts, humanities, or science majors), I choose to use this text as an introduction to my art history courses, regardless of their focus. Doing so allows me to assure that students from these arenas share an introduction, at least, and a common point of departure from which we might engage in the focused topic of our course.


Dr David McCarthy, Rhodes University recommends Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (Wadsworth Publishing; 13th edition, 2009 ISBN: 978-0495573609)

We have been using Gardner's Art Through the Ages for our standard, two-semester introduction to Western art.  In another year we will shift to a one-semester introduction, at which point we may change texts. I will then be teaching a contemporary survey, 1940 to the present, as a gateway course into the art history major. I'm not really a fan of textbooks, so I may just assign primary materials-statements, interviews, etc-and use class lecture to provide the overarching argument.

[Note for British readers – this volume can be hard to obtain in the UK.]

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