A Guide to the Web's Growing Set of Free Image Collections

Put Rembrandt on your report, Twitter profile or toilet paper
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Van Gogh's "Irises," one of the many paintings the Getty Trust made available as free, online, high-resolution images on Monday. (J. Paul Getty Trust)

On Monday, the J. Paul Getty Trust launched their Open Content Program, making more than 4,600 high-quality images of artwork available for free online. The digital images -- of paintings by Van Gogh, drawings by Rembrandt, and watercolors by Dürer -- had already fallen into the public domain, but the Getty's program makes their digital reproductions much easier to use on the web.

They're not the first museum to put so many images online this year. In the spring, the Rijksmuseum opened 125,000 digital images for use, with plans to digitize an additional 40,000 images from its archive every year.

When museums emancipate images like this, the benefits don't only redound upon the researchers, teachers, and students who can use and show high-resolution art in their books, lectures and papers. Putting images online helps anyone who wants to make a point with pictures, whether on their website or Facebook profile, on a t-shirt or, as a Rijksmuseum curator told the New York Timeson special Rembrandt toilet paper.

Below, we've listed the museums and research institutions that have large, high-quality, free-to-use collection of historically or aesthetically notable images online.

The J. Paul Getty Trust The Getty's Open Content Program goes beyond reproductions of paintings and drawings: It includes photographs of architecture, sculpture and jewelry. If you're looking for an introduction to the collection, the Getty's highlighted 39 images it thinks are its best.

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"The Milkmaid," a painting by Johannes Vermeer ca. 1660 (Rijksmuseum)

Rijks Studio The digital image collection of the Netherlands's state museum, Rijks Studio encompasses 125,000 images right now and will expand until it includes the Rijksmuseum's more than one million holdings. The museum's holdings extend to the 21st century, but its online offerings are especially rich in the Dutch Golden Age artists, like Rembrandt and Vermeer.

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Calisphere Hosted by the University of California, this "world of primary sources" includes illustrations, photographs and reproductions from California history, including a crate label archive from the public library of Orange, CA, and a large collection of photography and ephemera from WWII Japanese internment camps.

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NASA The American space agency makes both astronomy and historical photos available from the multimedia page of its website; above, Neil Armstrong and David Scott in the Gemini 8 capsule.

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The Bridge at Argenteuil, painted by Claude Monet in 1874 (National Gallery of Art)

National Gallery of Art The American gallery's collection includes 25,000 images, including works by Leonardo, Monet and Winslow Homer.

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A landscape in the Andalusia region of Spain (Swedish National Archives, via the Flickr Commons)

Flickr Commons One of the best-known of the web's free galleries, the Commons collates photography with "no known copyright restrictions" from institutions around the world. Its archive is predominantly from English-speaking countries, but that includes both Australia and New Zealand's National Libraries. Flickr Commons also represents collections based in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, and eastern Europe. 

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A 2013 photograph of the Dome of the Rock, taken by Wikipedia editor Godot13 and donated to the Commons.

Wikipedia Featured Pictures That Wikimedia Commons has a huge library of free pictures is fairly common knowledge for Internet image sniffers, but Wikipedia's page devoted to "Featured Pictures" remains little known. "This page highlights images that the Wikipedia community finds beautiful, stunning, impressive, or informative," it reads, which means it stays updated as Wikipedia editors find gorgeous high-quality images on the site. Its are and history sections are impressive, as are its sections devoted to flora and fauna photography.

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A 1938 WPA poster for the Ranger Naturalist Service at Zion National Park (Library of Congress)

Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog The LOC's catalog may be the only source here with its own anonymous Twitter account: @libraryofaleph tweets only the name of items in the collection, yet often does so to a clear rhetorical end. (After George Zimmerman was found not guilty, it tweeted almost exclusively the names of prints related to African-American history.) The success of @libraryofaleph is due, in part, to the breadth of the library's catalog: Its collection of free images includes more than 900 WPA posters, more than 3,000 American art illustrations, 400 snapshots taken by the song-collecting Lomax family, and hundreds of color photographs taken during a survey of the Russian Empire between 1905 and 1915.

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Prokudin-Gorskii's 1909 photograph of the Church of the Everforgiving Savior in Belozersk, a town in northwestern Russia. (Library of Congress)

And the most charming among these may be the Washington State Coastal Atlas. In 2006 and 2001, and during the 1990s and 1970s, the state of Washington photographed its lengthy shoreline from the air. Those photographs, in the public commons, are now linked together and displayed at the state's Coastal Atlas. The collection can be navigated by city, county, or landmark. You can download high-resolution versions of the images and compare how the the coastline appeared through the different iterations of photography.

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The North Head Lighthouse in Ilwaco, Washington, close to Cape Disappointment State Park (Washington State Coastal Atlas)

Know of any other bountiful image libraries on the web? Let us know below, or on Twitter at @yayitsrob.

The Washington State Coastal Atlas & NASA galleries via Charlie Loyd.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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