National Gallery of Art - RESOURCES

Image Collections: Photographs

detail of Amiens Cathedral   detail of Rembrandt, Large Self-Portrait, 1652   detail of Regence Brass-Inlaid Ebony and Bronze Dore Elephant Clock   detail of Neroccio de' Landi, Madonna and Child
home | core collections | collections from scholars | photographers & campaign organizers
dealers' archives | rare collections | history | collection research | hours & information


The Department of Image Collections serves as a vital component of the vast resources for art-historical research at the National Gallery, including the library, vertical files, curatorial records and files, Gallery archives, and the Gallery's art collection itself. The Department of Image Collections is composed of more than ten million images representing the entire history of Western art, from the caves of Lascaux to the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt. A limited number of non-Western subjects are also included. Photographs are generally acquired through purchases from museums or photographers, gifts from scholars, and exchanges with other institutions. Because of this significant range of sources and the Archives' long history at the Gallery, the collection documents not only the history of art but also its reproduction through photomechanical and reproductive prints and a wide span of photographic processes dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.

Mrs. Richter seated in the Richter home
Mrs. Richter seated in the Richter home
The seeds of the National Gallery of Art's Photographic Archives, the photograph component of the Image Collections, were planted in 1943 when Solomon R. Guggenheim gave the young museum the Richter Archive of Illustrations on Art. This archive, created by George M. Richter (1875-1942), a collector and authority on Renaissance art, consisted of 60,000 photographs and clippings from books and catalogues. All European schools were represented in the collection, with special attention given to Italian painting.

A National Gallery press release of August 4, 1943, emphasizes the Richter Archive's importance for scholarship in Washington, specifically for research on the National Gallery of Art's holdings. The acquisition was particularly timely because of growing concern for art and architecture lost as a result of World War II. The Gallery's statement points out that "the photographs...will be an invaluable record of many works of art from great European museums now either destroyed or dispersed. The photographs of paintings in private collections, to which Mr. Richter had access, are in many cases unique, and may be of great assistance in establishing the rightful ownership of works of art when the war is over."

The Richter Archive proved to be such a useful resource that plans were announced in 1970 to establish a Photographic Archive at the National Gallery with the Richter gift as its core. Through a generous start-up grant and the promise of continued support from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, Alessandro "Sandrino" Contini-Bonacossi was hired in September 1970 as the Archives' first curator.1 Contini-Bonacossi had previously served as a curator at the Kress Foundation and quickly began the task of amassing what their vice president called, "one of the great photographic collections of the world."2 The press deemed the collection, "The World's Largest Photo Album."3

Collection of Harold Acton
Collection of Harold Acton, photograph Foto Reali
A year later, the Photographic Archives was well on its way to the announced goal of collecting 2.5 million photographs. In July 1971 the Archives' purchase of approximately 130,000 negatives from the Parke-Bernet auctions and the gift of the Clarence Ward Medieval Architecture Archive nearly doubled the holdings. Other acquisitions soon followed, including the purchase of the Foto Reali and Gramstorff negatives, as well as the complete offerings of Fratelli Alinari. Contini also initiated the Archives' associations with Zodiaque and the Corpus Photographicum of Drawings, which continue to this day.

Heading the Archives until his death in 1975, Contini-Bonacossi was succeeded by Ruth Philbrick, who came to the National Gallery after many years at the Epstein Archive at the University of Chicago. She continued to strengthen the Archives by seeking out notable commercial and private collections. Among the numerous important collections acquired in her tenure are the René Huyghe and Venturi/Rewald archives, the Witt and Conway Libraries on microfiche, and images from Art International and the Munich Central Collecting Point.Mrs. Philbrick retired in 2004 at which point the Photographic Archives and Slide Library were merged, with Gregory P.J. Most as the head.

The Photographic Archives has also been shaped by other departments at the National Gallery, especially the curatorial offices. One result of such reciprocal relationships is the exhibition archive, which contains photographs, transparencies, and negatives documenting objects from every exhibition in the Gallery's history.4

The Archives' Samuel H. Kress Conservation Grant was inaugurated in 2000, making it possible to bring on board a conservator to survey the collection, conserve its rare materials, and recommend improvements for housing and safeguarding its resources.

The Photographic Archives now consists of nearly three million black-and-white photographs and negatives and seven million microform images. Thanks to the devotion of curators and staff as well as the ongoing support of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the collection is one of the most extensive of images of art and architecture in the world.

1His uncle (of the same name) had served as an art advisor and dealer to Samuel H. Kress.
2Letter of May 6, 1970, to J. Carter Brown, then director of the National Gallery of Art, from Mary M. Davis, then vice president of the Kress Foundation.
3San Francisco Chronicle, October 23, 1970.
4This collection does not, however, include installation shots from the exhibitions; these are preserved in Gallery Archives.

home | core collections | collections from scholars | photographers & campaign organizers
dealers' archives | rare collections | history | collection research | hours & information