Finding images on the Internet

The following is a quick guide to locating good quality images on the web. The first point of call when looking for art historical images is the subscription database ARTstor which can be accessed using your Senate House Library membership (all staff and students of the Courtauld are entitled to register with Senate House).

As well as the extensive content, the main advantage of using ARTstor is that it is a professionally maintained image library; you can trust that, for example, the Mona Lisa won’t be attributed to Michelangelo. Each high resolution image has metadata giving information about the date, material, school and other descriptive details, which allow you to do more powerful searches. The content can be used freely for any educational (non-commercial) activity but can’t be reproduced on an unrestricted website (this blog, for example).

I found 124 images of work by Italian baroque painter Luca Giordano, 33 images relating to contemporary performance artist Orlan and over a thousand images of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Mars, Venus and Cupid
Luca Giordano
c. 1670
From Wikimedia Commons (note that a much better quality image is available on ARTstor)

Another excellent resource is Grove Art Online. When viewing any of the scholarly articles you can click on the Images tab at the top of the page. As well as hosting files it also links to verified external sources – normally images from gallery and museum websites. Again these are free to use for educational purposes.

There are many other useful databases such as the Visual Arts Data Serviceor our own Art and Architecture; for a broad list go to the useful links section of the website and scroll down to Images & Multimedia.

Wikimedia Commons is a file repository for public domain and creative commons images. Creative commons exists to bridge the gap between copyrighted material and the public domain. When using websites such as Wikimedia or Flickr, look for the symbols which let you know the conditions under which an image may be used. Like all wikis the content is user generated and therefore can be unreliable. Just as you wouldn’t rely on Wikipedia as a primary source for research it is inadvisable to assume that Wikimedia will have the same quality control as a peer reviewed scholarly publication. One way of dealing with this difficulty is to check the source of the image; it can often be traced back to a gallery website or intermediary organisations, such as the Web Gallery of Art.

Lastly, we come to the ubiquitous Google. Google allows you to find images relating to almost any imaginable topic, however, as it is not a subject specific database and the content is poorly indexed means that relevant results are often hidden under page after page of soft pornography or pictures of cats. To overcome this you may need to learn how to construct an effective search string (possibly the subject of a future blog post?).

Rembrandt’s Homer Simpson
David Barton
c. 2009
The first result from a Google image search for ‘Rembrandt’
(from under a Creative Commons license).

Another difficulty is that many images found on the web will be at pitifully low resolution, so you may need to think about how the image will appear when reproduced. The internet is the wild west of copyright, and using images found via Google can generate a host of issues. Also, only a small percentage of the internet is ‘visible’ to search engines such as Google. The Deep Web which is not indexed by such sites includes a wealth of useful databases.

Still can’t find what you’re looking for? If you know where an artwork is held try the relevant institution’s website or contact them directly regarding reproduction of images. Sometimes useful results can be found by looking in unusual places. If you’re looking for a portrait try the Dictionary of National Biography online. If you’re looking for images relating to the human body or architecture try the image library of the Wellcome Collection.

Also remember to try our own image libraries and the Slide Library eMuseum which currently has over 30,000 images.

Please remember the importance of checking that you have the necessary copyright permission for your intended use. For example images from a commercial source such as the Bridgeman Art Library will need to be paid for. For a more in-depth guide to finding images and some of the issues involved try this excellent tutorial created by Intute.

Nicholas Brown
Graduate Trainee