Discover Art History Books Through the Eyes of Famous Authors

What are the best art history books? Many people study art history through the eyes of historians. I’ll make the case that famous and prolific authors hold an intriguing historical perspective through the art history books and visual artwork they created. Who better to translate art history than the greatest wordsmiths who ever lived. But to go beyond art history books and travel back in time to fully immerse yourself, consider art history books through the eyes of famous authors.

When looking back at great art history books, you might end up reading stories of how prolific artists inspired different movements and left their imprint on the art world. I’ve found a unique perspective when studying history, and I have an entertaining and provoking suggestion for you.

The Best Art History Books

I would argue that art history could be understood in a completely new and exciting light through famous authors’ eyes. There’s much to learn from legendary authors who were also captivated by creating visual art.

What are the best art history books? I would argue that understanding art history from the perspective of legendary authors gives a unique viewpoint. Why not look to the greatest writers who had much to say about creating to understand art history fully.

Ernest Hemmingway

The best art history books not only deliver facts but feelings and insight into the desire to create. Ernest Hemmingway was not only a writer, but fully immersed in the art world in every way, shape, and form nearly his entire life. Almost instantly, on his arrival in Paris in 1921, Hemmingway attached himself to some of the most legendary painters ever to live. Hemmingway was personal friends with Picasso, Miro, and Masson and would collect his friends’ paintings over the remainder of his life.

It’s proven that Hemmingway had a strong friendship and admiration with many famous painters. He would eventually own many famous paintings, which now hang in famous art galleries around the world. Hemmingway purchased The Guitar Player and The Bullfighter, both by a close painting friend, Juan Gris. He frequented the Louvre in Paris, the Accademia in Venice, and the Metropolitan Museum, to name a few.

In one interview, Hemmingway said he learned as much from painters about writing as from writers. This is an astounding admission and should not be taken lightly. One of the greatest writers to ever live was looking to the world of painting for inspiration. He said painters were a part of learning how to see and hear and feel. Time and time again, famous authors had close ties to the visual art world and had much to say about it in their writing.

Colette Hemingway wrote a book titled “In His Time: Ernest Hemingway’s Collection of Paintings and the Artists He Knew.” The book chronicles Hemingway’s relationship with some of the most famous painters of the 1900s, which many refer to as one of the important periods of modern art. In an essay Colette Hemingway wrote, she expanded on the influence art had on Hemingway’s writing.

In his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, he gives excruciating accounts of the devastation suffered on both sides during the Spanish Civil War, with many of his passages reading very much like the images depicted by Goya in his series of etchings titled The Disasters of War. In other works, Hemingway comments on Cezanne’s style and way of interpreting the world around him.

Colette Hemingway, essay, 2004

Umberto Eco

Novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco authored everything from children’s books to newspaper columns to novels. Interestingly, like Hemingway, Umberto Eco was intrigued by a group of painters and artists who influenced much of his writing career. Along with authors James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges, Eco often collaborated with philosophers and artists with much of his writing.

In 2004, Umberto Eco published “History of Beauty,” exploring the question of what beauty is. The book studies the history of beauty in Western culture by focusing on some of the art created and influenced our culture.

History of Beauty describes how every era had its own idea of beauty and how it was portrayed through art. The book includes over 300 illustrations that trace the history of Western art relating to beauty.

Henry Miller

When Henry Miller wasn’t writing ground-breaking, provocative, and sometimes outlawed books and stories, he was painting. He created thousands of watercolor paintings over his lifetime. In addition to his watercolor creations, he also wrote a book titled “Why Abstract?” detailing his take on modern art.

And did I mention Miller also developed an entirely new form of literature many call ‘semi-autobiographical novels?’ His classic books, such as Tropic of Cancer, Rosy Crucifixion, and Black Spring, change the way people viewed social and philosophical issues. Miller was such a groundbreaking writer that many of his books were banned in the United States until 1961.

The book ‘Why Abstract’ by Henry Miller, Hilaire Hiller, and William Saroyan includes discussions on modern art in essay and letter form. Miller had many thoughts and options on the art world and was eager to share them. He’s a great example of, like Hemmingway, a prolific author who was also joined tightly with well-known painters of his time. As a watercolor artist, many of his paintings are now selling for thousands of dollars each.

art history books
The 1945 first edition book about art by Henry Miller titled, “Why Abstract” can be purchased right now for $85 on AbeBooks. If that’s not of art history books, then I’m not sure what is.

Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. He was best known for his writing as the creator of Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. A book full of essays by Hermann Hesse was published in 1951 titled “My Belief: Essays on Life and Art.” The book is divided into two parts and gives an insightful view of the writer behind the novels that made him famous.

One of the essays included in the book by Hermann Hesse is titled “Description of a Landscape.” Although Hermann Hesse is best known for his writing and novels, he was also a painting fanatic. His painting career didn’t start until he reached age 40, but he began painting landscapes as a therapeutic activity.

Hesse used his paintings as inspiration in many of his books. His works of art hang on the walls of The Herman Hesse Museum in Montagnola, Switzerland.

art history books
My Belief, Essays on Life and Art by Hermann Hesse contains much thought on writing, art, and painting. A first American edition copy published in 1974 is selling for $350.

Discovering Art History Books

I’ve discovered many prolific authors were also interested in painting and creating visual art. Maybe it was an outlet to break up long writing sessions, or maybe just something they wanted to express. But many great authors have a history of painting, sculpting, sketching, and creating art history and writing. When learning about art history, some of the best insights might be given by the great writers immersed in the art world.

Discovering Infinite Connections in Art History is a book published by Phaidon in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The book features essays and images discovering the world of art history. It can be a great resource and starting point for exploring the history of the art world.