Reading List: 6 Inspiring Biographies of Artistic Geniuses

artist biographies

With summer waning and back-to-school season looming (if not already begun), there’s no better time to start working on a fall reading list — a collection of books to curl up with as the air gets colder and the colors change. Here are six biographies of genius artists from the historic greats to modern-day masters. All of the following are available in ebook or paper form from major online booksellers or, best of all, from your local library.

Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

This painstakingly researched recreation of Vincent Van Gogh’s life, work, and ultimate suicide is an invaluable glimpse into the one-of-a-kind genius of one of the greatest artists of our time. Drawing on primary sources including Van Gogh’s own letters to his brother, Naifeh and Smith ensure that by the time you turn the final page, you’ll know Van Gogh as intimately as you know an old friend. Bonus: if Naifeh and Smith’s work really draws you in, they’ve written an equally inspiring account of Jackson Pollock’s life and work.

Read it if…you have a wheelbarrow or a lot of memory on your ebook in order to cart around almost a thousand pages (including full-color illustrations).

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon

Known for her iconic images of the Dust Bowl, migrant workers, and other pivotal moments of the 20th Century, Dorothea Lange was a master of capturing personal stories and cultural history in a single shot. This meticulously researched volume provides a glimpse into both who Lange was and the culture and history that shaped her work. Gordon’s vivid writing will transport you to bohemian San Francisco, the inside of Japanese internment camps, and points beyond.

Read it if…you want to be inspired to take your visual storytelling to a whole new level.

Secret Lives of Great Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You About Master Painters and Sculpters by Elizabeth Lunday, with illustrations by Marco Zucca

If a survey of the lives of multiple artists rather than an in-depth look at one is more your speed, try this fast-moving volume that spills secrets about artists including Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, and more. The combination of little-known facts and basic introductions to history’s great artists makes tearing through these pages a breeze, and Zucca’s pop art-y illustrations are a fun accompaniment.

Read it like your books to read a little like your internet does. The zippy tone of each account has the feel of a really well-written blog post.

Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz by Cynthia Carr

David Wojnarowicz was a rare breed, in that he was a jack of all trades and a master of many. He worked as a painter, filmmaker, writer, photographer, and anti-censorship advocate in New York’s East Village in the 1970s and 1980s. This beautifully written biography provides readers with insight into his abusive upbringing, emergence as one of the voices of his generation, and battle with AIDS.

Read it don’t mind a tear-jerker. Wojnarowicz’s life is as inspiring as his too-early death is tragic.

The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock with illustrations by Mary Grand Pre

If you have a young artist at home, this picture book will introduce them to the work of abstract artist Vasya Kandinsky, who both saw and heard shapes and colors. While this book isn’t a full account of Kandinsky’s life, Rosenstock lovingly depicts his struggle to express himself in a world that just wanted him to paint nice, traditional flowers and houses. As an added bonus, the style of illustrations might be familiar to your young reader — Grand Pre is the mastermind behind the Harry Potter covers.

Read it if…have art supplies at the ready. Your child’s imagination will likely be sparked enough that he or she will want to start creating just as soon as the book is closed.

Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei by Barnaby Martin

In April 2011, activist and artist Ai Weiwei was arrested and jailed by the Chinese Communist Party for two months because of alleged economic crimes. Following his release, Martin traveled to China to both interview Weiwei and investigate the cultural context in which he works. This blend of Weiwei’s life story, his goals for his art, and the history of art in modern China explores ideas about creativity, justice, and the genius of Weiwei’s work.

Read it if…you want to explore the relationships between art, protest, censorship, and social change. Be prepared to get a little outraged.

Lauren Hoffman FOLLOW >

Lauren Hoffman lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. By day, she's a freelance writer and editor; by night, she's at work completing a book-length non-fiction project, Up High Down Low.