Obelisk Art History

Recommended Reading

I read a lot of books while researching Obelisk’s essays. Below are some of my absolute favorites, from broad overviews of art history to obsessive niche explorations. Obelisk is an affiliate member with Amazon and Indiebound, so if you follow the links below to make purchases, I’ll earn a small kickback from qualifying purchases. It’s a great way to snag some excellent reading material and help support Obelisk at the same time.

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The Painter's Secret Geometry, Recommended Reading

OMG I love this book. Through careful examination and a freakishly deep knowledge of mathematical harmony, artist and writer Charles Bouleau speculates on the hidden geometry underpinning centuries of artistic development. Awesome, esoteric read.

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Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City, Recommended Reading

How was life lived 7000 years ago? Follow the development of some of the earliest urban communities in the world by Assyriologist (coolest job ever) Gwendolyn Leick.

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Leonardo da Vinci, a Biography, Recommended Reading

Da Vinci has been discussed to death across hundreds of books, but this biography of the Renaissance genius is by Walter Isaacson, a legend in his own right for his biographies of Einstein and Steve Jobs. Get this one.

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Jean-Honore Fragonard: Life and Work, Recommended Reading

Jean-Pierre Cuzin, long-time curator at the Louvre, wrote this authoritative biography and compendium of Fragonard's work—I want it, but don't own it yet, because it's hard to find and extremely expensive.

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Growing Pains: The Autobiography of Emily Carr, Recommended Reading

God I love an autobiography, especially when the author's memory is as vivid and their writing as sharp as Emily Carr's.

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The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel, Recommended Reading

A classic big 'ol Taschen book, you're gonna get a bio, essays, and a bunch of beautiful reproductions. I don't own this book yet, so don't know if they cover Haeckel's theories about the lost continent of Lemuria...

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Camille Pissarro: The Studio of Modernism, Recommended Reading

Pissarro is an incredibly subtle artist, making his art, and his legacy a bit underwhelming. This catalogue for a Pissarro exhibition by the Kunstmuseum Basel takes a new look at this underestimated painter and... anarchist?

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The Printmaker's Daughter: A Novel, Recommended Reading

I don't usually recommend novelizations of artist's lives, but Katherine Govier undertook incredibly deep research into the life of Katsushika Ōi for this novel, making it both insightful and a great read. Just remember that it's part fiction :)

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Arcimboldo: 1526-1593, Recommended Reading

This seems to be the only substantive book on the life and work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, and while the translation from Italian is pretty rocky, it goes wide—including a variety of essays on Arcimboldo and his historical context.

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The Writings Of Marcel Duchamp, Recommended Reading

For an infamous art-trickster, Marcel Duchamp wrote seriously about the nature of art and artists as 'mediumistic beings navigating a labyrinth beyond time and space.' Very worth a read.

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Romaine Brooks: A Life, Recommended Reading

Cassandra Langer spent decades researching Romaine Brooks, making this biography a fresh, thorough, and provocative look at one of the most important queer artists of the 20th century.

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Bruegel: The Master, Recommended Reading

A complete survey of the 16th century's most prolific and respected Netherlandish artist. Dive deep into Bruegel's incredibly dense, imaginative compositions, complements of the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna.

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The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, Recommended Reading

You've seen Leonora Carrington's artwork, now read her short stories. Macabre, surreal, sinister and beautiful—a fantastic read.

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Albrecht Dürer, a Biography, Recommended Reading

A humanizing look at Albrecht Dürer as clever businessman, budding scientist, and of course, genius engraver by historian Norbert Wolf. Includes a catalog raisonne of Dürer's paintings, a nice bonus.

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The Complete Mystical Records of Dr. John Dee, Recommended Reading

This three-volume set painstakingly reproduces John Dee's dozens of interviews with angels and the occult wisdom they shared, complete with Dee's intricate sigils, number squares and marginalia. This is my favorite book in my personal library.

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William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books, Recommended Reading

Blake was both an artist and a poet, and he often combined both forms into intensely illuminated texts where tiny figures dance with the words or painted flames engulf the page. This beautiful volume reproduces these visionary works in full color.

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Foreshadowed: Malevich’s "Black Square" and Its Precursors, Recommended Reading

The story behind one of the most radical pieces of art ever made. Follow five hundred years of artistic development to its inevitable conclusion in Kasimir Malevich's Black Square.

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Artemisia, Recommended Reading

It's always hard to pick which book to read on a popular artist. Artemisia makes the choice a bit easier by compiling a wide range of essays covering Artemisia Gentileschi's life, technique, and most interestingly—many of her letters.

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Thomas Cole: The Artist as Architect, Recommended Reading

Thomas Cole was one of the most famous landscape painters of his day, yet at the height of his popularity he listed himself in the New York City Directory as an architect. Find out why in this unusual biography of the artist.

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Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun, Recommended Reading

Follow Claude Cahun and their partner Marcel Moore from their deconstruction of gender norms in the 1920s through Cahun's dangerous acts of resistance during the Nazi occupation of the island of Jersey. A fascinating life.

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Boccioni, Recommended Reading

A massive tome by the historian and artist Ester Coen, Boccioni expertly frames the artist in his context, with tons of rare photographs, quotes, letters, and reproductions. It's a big book—you really get your money's worth here.

An Artist's Memoirs, Recommended Reading

Anita Magsaysay-Ho painted the Filipina women she knew from her childhood from studios in Brazil, Canada, Hong Kong, New York, and Japan. Her memoir is hard to find, but occasionally a used copy pops up. Best of luck!

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Master of Shadows, Recommended Reading

Peter Paul Rubens was an artistic genius, but he was also a secret agent. With innate charm and a convenient excuse for international travel, this book tells the story of a Rococo master dodging plots and brokering peace between nations.

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The Lives of the Artists, Recommended Reading

The OG! Giorgio Vasari was one of the first art historians, and this volume remains one of the most important sources of information about the artists of the Italian Renaissance. It's also surprisingly fun to read.

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Witchcraft, The Library of Esoterica, Recommended Reading

A fascinating deep dive into witchcraft in art history, featuring works by Goya, Dürer, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Leonor Fini, and Luis Ricardo Falero—edited by the brilliant writer and practicing witch Pam Grossman. Extremely cool.

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Egon Schiele: Drawings and Watercolors, Recommended Reading

There are an absurd number of books covering the short life of Egon Schiele, but this unique volume focuses on his rarely seen drawings and watercolors, with 350 illustrations in color.

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Life of Gustave Doré, Recommended Reading

Ok this is a cool one. Rather than a contemporary analysis of a long-dead artist, this biography of the genius engraver Gustave Doré was written by his friend and collaborator Blanchard Jerrold and first published just 8 years after Doré's death.

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, Recommended Reading

Few artists bared their souls like Van Gogh. In his letters to his brother Theo, his friend Gauguin, and many other artists and patrons, we experience first-hand the tortured optimism of a humble genius.

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The Memoirs Of Giorgio De Chirico, Recommended Reading

De Chirico's memoirs are like his artwork—strangely fixated on seemingly insignificant events, opinionated, surreal, mercurial, bitter, curious, and always mysterious.

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The New Art—The New Life, Recommended Reading

Piet Mondrian extensively about his philosophy and practice of art. You can read selections of his writings here on Obelisk, but for the full, 400-page experience, get this quintessential volume.

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Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, Recommended Reading

The journalist Laurie Lisle spent three years interviewing Georgia O'Keeffe's friends, family, and colleagues to compile this absolutely definitive biography of the fiercely independent modern voice.

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Gustave Courbet, a Biography, Recommended Reading

A thoughtful biography of the controversial Courbet by the historian Gerstle Mack. It's an old volume, and the artwork reproductions and in black and white, but it's cheap, and good.

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Man Ray, Self Portrait: An Autobiography, Recommended Reading

See this 20th century art world through the eyes of the mercurial Emanuel Radinsky, or as we know him: Man Ray, in a revealing and frank autobiography

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Ilya Repin, A Biography, Recommended Reading

While this biography of Repin doesn't crawl inside the artist's mind in the way I hope for, it is a thorough volume with extremely high-quality reproductions of his artworks.

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Utagawa Kuniyoshi: The Edo-Period Eccentric, Recommended Reading

This in-depth volume on Kuniyoshi is out of print and extremely hard to find. But here's the link, in case you get lucky and there's a rare copy in stock.

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To Myself: Notes on Life, Art and Artists, Recommended Reading

There are many books on Odilon Redon, but I always find the best books on artists are the ones they write themselves. Learn how Redon saw the world, directly from his personal journals.

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Monet, The Triumph of Impressionism, Recommended Reading

Get the full story of a man devoted to the sublime sensation of seeing. A beautiful collection of artworks and insightful biography.

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Hieronymus Bosch, Painter and Draughtsman, Recommended Reading

The official catalogue raisonné by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project. This is it, y'all: the definitive book on Bosch

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Gustav Klimt, Art Nouveau Visionary, Recommended Reading

A huge, ultra in-depth examination of Klimt's life and work. Not for the faint of heart, but if you want to dig into Klimt, this is your book.

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Jacques Louis David: Radical Draftsman, Recommended Reading

The ultimate behind-the-scenes tour, this book selects from David's 2000 known sketches and drawings to describe in detail the years-long process of creating a masterpiece.

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The Moment of Caravaggio, Recommended Reading

Why was Caravaggio obsessed with decapitation? Find out in this extremely deep investigation of Caravaggio's life, work, influence—and of course, enemies

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Bouguereau and America, Recommended Reading

Bouguereau was a one of the top dogs of the French art world, but this unique book documents how and why his work absolutely exploded in the United States (insert bougie pun here)

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Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape, Recommended Reading

There are lot of books on Caspar David Friedrich, but Harvard's Joseph Leo Koerner goes deep, weaving the artist and his work into the tapestry of 19th century romanticism

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Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Recommended Reading

Kandinsky saw artwork as emerging from the subconscious, a breadcrumb trail of spiritual truths that if followed, would lead us up the metaphysical pyramid to transcendence. Big stuff, worth a read.

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Frida Kahlo, The Complete Paintings, Recommended Reading

For the first time, all 152 of Frida Kahlo's known artworks are collected in a single volume, with analysis, biography, and rare photos of the artist. The definitive book on Frida.

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Matisse on Art, Recommended Reading

Matisse was an intensely thoughtful artist, and luckily for us he described his theory and practice in writing. This volume collects 44 essays and interviews with the man who reinvented color.

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100 Artists' Manifestos, Recommended Reading

Manifestos are written when the world is a mess, humans are apathetic, and change is needed. Here are 100 examples to inspire your own.

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Gauguin's Intimate Journals, Recommended Reading

How problematic was this famously problematic artist? Gauguin holds nothing back in this egotistical, self-pitying memoir. Enjoy?

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The Romance of Scholar's Stones, Recommended Reading

Kemin Hu guides you through the unique vocabulary and history of Chinese stone collecting and appreciation. A beautiful, contemplative book

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Femme Fatale, Recommended Reading

How did the alluring femme fatale become one of culture's most enduring archetypes? This book's feminism is out of date, but it still provides an entry point into a deeply complex topic

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Diary of a Genius, Recommended Reading

Salvador Dali was a furious tornado of creative energy (also a huge pervert). Crawl inside his depraved, egotistical mind in this riveting autobiography

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Hildegard of Bingen’s Unknown Language, Recommended Reading

Hildegard of Bingen's visions from God were so vivid she invented a new language to describe them. This translation is a must for all lovers of the esoteric...

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The Shock of the New, Recommended Reading

Robert Hughes narrates the rise of modernism with humor, clarity, and staggeringly deep cultural knowledge in one of my favorite art history books—a must read

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Vasari on Technique, Recommended Reading

Vasari was one of the first art historians, working in the 16th century—and his treatise on artistic techniques is still insightful 500 years later

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Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire, Recommended Reading

Gorgeous color printing and in-depth essays make this a definitive exploration of the majestic Teotihuacan civilization—and one of the most beautiful books in my library

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Letters of the Great Artists, Recommended Reading

Letters of the Great Artists collects hundreds of intimate notes and messages from artists to their best friends and worst enemies. An incredible way to learn about many of history's most famous artists.

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Imperial Mughal Painting, Recommended Reading

44 years old and long out of print, this slim volume is still a great introduction to the painstakingly precise world of Mughal miniature painting

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Hilma af Klint, Notes and Methods, Recommended Reading

There are currently two majors books on the works and occult cosmology of visionary artist Hilma af Klint—this is the better one

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The History of Africa, Recommended Reading

A brilliant, in-depth review of the histories of the African continent's many distinct cultures. Essential reading for understanding African art

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Japanese Women Artists, 1600-1900, Recommended Reading

One of my favorite volumes. Many of these women artists are barely represented online, if at all. This book is a treasure

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Photographs by Man Ray, Recommended Reading

Though famous for turning found garbage into art, this collection of Man Ray's intensely creative photographs cements him as a pioneer of the medium

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The Story of Painting, Recommended Reading

A joyful and remarkably thorough overview of Western painting by the witty and charming historian, and Roman Catholic nun, Sister Wendy

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The Blood of Kings, Recommended Reading

Explore the how the Mayan culture connected art, spirituality, and ritual in a gristly, beautifully illustrated exploration by historian George Braziller

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