You know how sometimes things spiral into a much bigger project than you originally planned? Yeah… about that….
Because I seem to have somehow gone from writing, what I thought, was just going to be a short and sweet blog post rounding up some of my favorite artwork currently available for free in the public domain, to spending WEEKS digging through online digital archives from around the world in order to compile MULTIPLE curated collections of artwork and create my own personal little art gallery print shop.
DID I MENTION THEY ARE ALL FREE?
Yep. 100%, totally, completely free for you to download high-resolution digital files of and print off to your hearts content. Worst business model ever I know….
But why Kadie!? Why would you spend so many days/weeks/hours compiling a gigantic resource of curated images for people to just download for free!?
I’m so glad you asked! It all started a few weeks ago when Deema (who may be my favorite DIY person I follow instagram) wrote a blog post that brought to my attention the number of online shops there currently are selling inexpensive digital downloads of vintage artwork that individuals can print and use to decorate their homes with. More importantly, she broke down HOW they are choosing to go about doing this. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- Print shop owner sources a public domain art image they like.
- Print shop owner modifies the art file as they see fit.
- Print shop owner gives the art a new name of their choosing.
- Print shop owner then places the art on their digital downloads storefront for sale, stripped of all its history, devoid of any accompanying information crediting the original title of the work or the name of the original artist in any way shape or form. The only designation that the work is not their own is the ambiguous title of “vintage” they may label it with.
As someone who went to art school, works as a professional artist, and has a long history of caring deeply about art, this whole situation rubbed me the wrong way as well.
Because, I love art. I think art means something. I also know not everyone can afford original artwork for their home and I think EVERYONE should be able to have artwork in their lives, no matter how small their budget.
And that’s where public domain artwork comes in. Because public domain artwork is just that, it’s in THE PUBLIC DOMAIN, which means it’s free to use, print…. or sell… as you please. Which is exactly what many of these online shops are doing. Except when they find an image they like, they strip it of all its accompanying information, digitally enhance it and sell it without any attribution to the original artist whatsoever.
Well… I figured two can play at that game…
So I decided to use my insider knowledge of the art world for good and track down some of my favorite pieces of artwork and curate them into an online digital gallery. One that not only provides you information on each piece of art, including the name of artist and the name of the work, but also provides you with a direct link to the online archive where you too can download the original high-resolution file FOR FREE to print from as you please.
BUT HERE’S THE THING
I know, FREE! Need we really keep talking? Yes. Just for a second because I want to mention a few final things.
First, PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD IN THE WORLD, respect this resource and all the time and love that has gone into compiling it for you. That means, please don’t just go download all these images and then open your own paid digital downloads shop with them. That would make me sad. Also, please always make sure and respect the artist if you decide to use one of their pieces in your home. If their name isn’t visible on the front, write it on the back when you print it so you don’t forget who made it. If you share the image on your social media, try to mention the name of the artist or the title of the piece you are featuring.
Also, I just want to note that BECAUSE this is not a digital download service and you will be accessing the raw archive files for yourself, many of these may need “help” in order to print their best. For instance, some images may need to be cropped a bit in order to only show the front of the canvas and not the edges or remove the background the painting was laid on to photograph. Most of these will be weird sizes. Just go in knowing that no one has done the work of making these images “print ready” for you.
Lastly, while these images may be free, and are an excellent way to start bringing artwork into your home and your lives on a budget, keep in mind that these pieces of art would not have been created if that artist wasn’t supported by patrons during their lifetime. So while I want you to utilize this resource and fill your homes with as much free art as possible, I also encourage you to try and support current working artists whenever you have the means and ability to do so.
HOW THE GALLERY WORKS
Because I think it’s important for you to know where this artwork is coming from, and because I think it’s important to make sure that these archives receive the hits and web traffic to their site that they deserve as thanks for hosting these images and providing the service that they do, I’ve designed this gallery as a sort of curated collection of links.
So what you’ll find in each of the galleries are low res image preview files of the images that I’ve curated. Clicking on any of the files will then take you directly to the archive where that image is available for a free high-resolution digital download.
I *HIGHLY* encourage you to look around while you’re there and see what else you may find, since the artwork that spoke to me and that I chose to include in this curated gallery may not be the images that speak to you.
If you would like to do your own search, the main archives I browsed to find these images were:
- The Met Open Access Collection
- National Gallery of Art Collection
- Art Institute of Chicago Collection
- The Smithsonian Institution Collection
- Paris Musées Collection (this one is mostly in french and can be a bit more challenging to navigate)
- Wikimedia Commons
- Yale Center For British Art
For more information about how the Public Domain works, what items classify as being in the public domain and how you can use these images, check out the bottom of the Public Domain Print Shop Gallery page by clicking here! I break down everything you need to know in detail over there.
A FINAL NOTE REGARDING DIGITAL DOWNLOAD PRINT SHOPS
Before wrapping up this post, I really quickly want to circle back to this topic for a moment.
Are these print shops doing anything wrong? Legally? No. But just because something is legal doesn’t mean it feels quite right in the way they are going about it.
Because, to me, Just because an artist is dead and has been dead for the past 70 years, and their artwork has now passed into the public domain doesn’t give anyone the right to strip their name from their artwork. (I mean you don’t see anyone trying to do this to a work of literature in the public domain, so why is it ok with a painting?)
While I will admit that most of these services do in fact put in many many hours of hard work to sources these images, digitally update them for optimal printing, crop them to better fit various common size format needs for our modern day audiences, or even go as far as altering them to remove details they find distracting, and yes, while all that hard work is valuable, it still does not change the fact that they are not the original authors of the work they are selling and are choosing not to credit the original artist in any way.
Do I think it is wrong for them to sell these images? No. I actually don’t mind the fact that they are doing the hard work of digging through these archives and curating collections of images for people who don’t have the time or inclination to do so. (Because I obviously now know how long this takes) I don’t even mind that they are digitally updating them to ensure they come out looking their best when printed. (Although some would argue heavily against anyone altering another person’s artwork). What I DO MIND is that it feels like they are not being fully honest. It feels as if they are attempting to pass off another person’s artistic creation as their own, even if doing so only by omission. This essentially steals the audiences chance to connect with the real artist in a deeper way, rabbit hole down exploring all the other work that artist created and building a relationship with the artwork that goes beyond “a pretty picture to hang on my wall”.
The bottom line is, I’m all for utilizing artwork in the public domain, but I think we owe the original artist the respect of at least knowing their name and crediting them with the work. Something as simple as “Name Of Artwork” Digitally Updated By XXX Print Shop From An Original Work By XXX Artist is all I want… is that too much to ask? I don’t think so.