'There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.' -- E. H. Gombrich
The story of visual art is told by Gombrich from understandings of its first forms and use through the ages of reason, iconography, renaissance and enlightenment and on to the struggle to affix where art is now. First published in 1950, the book was subsequently edited through several editions by Gombrich until 2001. It is most likely the most popular book surveying visual art still in publication.
The reason for this are the self-imposed rules by the author kept through all editions. The first rule was to avoid pretentious jargon, using plain language where possible and limiting technical terms. The next was when referring to a specific work of art an illustration was provided. The next rule was to not include works interesting merely 'as a specimen of taste or fashion'. Another rule was to resist including favourite works that might crowd out masterpieces. And his final rule was to break these rules now and then.
These limitations produced probably the most useful book to introduce oneself to the world of visual art, Art History and Art Theory. If you are considering a day at a city's Art Museum, this book will prepare you, excite you and inspire you.
Copies may be found at any decent bookstore, used bookstore, or downloaded. I have a pocket edition, with its over 500 plates overwhelming the onionskin thin paper of the text. Two ribbons help me flip from the pleasant conversational style of each chapter to the work of art illustrating the wealth of subjects. Also includes further reading, discussion of source material, and index of art by location.