Ginevra de’ Benci is Not Impressed (but I am)

OK, this is apparently old news, but new to me: Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art has launched NGA Images, a database where you can search, view, and download (for free!) high resolution images of works of art the museum owns and believes to be in the public domain. More than 25,000 images so far!

Ginevra de’ Benci is not impressed:


Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452 – 1519 ), Ginevra de’ Benci [obverse], c. 1474/1478, oil on panel, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

But I am.

I guess they did this over a year ago, but I just found out about it thanks to Dave pointing me to this Open Culture post.

I love that they have totally embraced the spirit of the public domain. There are no restrictions on how you can use these images. No non-commercial clauses, not even any requirement to link back to the NGA website (although a note indicating the source of the image is encouraged). You can really, really, really do whatever you want with them. According to the site’s OA policy:

Images of these works are now available free of charge for any use, commercial or non-commercial. Users do not need to contact the Gallery for authorization to use these images. They are available for download at the NGA Images website (

In some ways this feels only natural. These works belong to everyone and should be available to everyone. In other ways, it feels like a huge, incredible gift. “Available to everyone” has implications today that the artists of these works never could have imagined (and of course most of these works would have been available only to a tiny, specific audience in their original environments anyway). High quality digital reproduction–and the maintenance of the files and metadata created–is labor-intensive, expensive work. But if museums are doing it anyway, as many are, it’s wonderful that they share the images, rather than locking them down.

A couple of notes:

  • In order to download hi res images suitable for printing/publication, you have to create an account on the site. No account is needed to download lo res, screen-friendly images.
  • The search engine cannot handle you misspelling artist’s names like I always do. Da Vinci, not Davinci. Pissarro, not Pisarro. Michelangelo, not Michaelangelo.
  • When I imported these images into wordpress, the metadata (title, artist, date, materials, and donor, of course!) automatically came with it! They are making it hard for you to cite improperly.
  • In the database record for each painting, they indicate the “Image Use” as “Open Access.” I wish they’d say instead “Public Domain,” which has a much more specific, clear definition. Open Access is defined in different ways by different people. At best, it includes the freedom to reproduce the work, but it leaves the copyright status of the work unclear. Many (most?) works classified as Open Access are in fact protected by copyright, and the copyright holder has decided to allow free access to their work.  “Public domain” goes further, asserting that the work is free from any copyright protection at all.

OK! Now go spend the rest of your day downloading art and admiring it.

Jan Toorop (Dutch, 1858 - 1928 ), Charley Looking at an Album of Prints, 1898, drypoint on buff wove paper, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

Jan Toorop (Dutch, 1858 – 1928 ), Charley Looking at an Album of Prints, 1898, drypoint on buff wove paper, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund


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