Free Images

Rhododendron watercolor by Arioshi Kondo,  Sketchbook 3 in the New York Public Library

In my exploration of freely accessible web resources (1,2), I almost passed over images because they are so ubiquitous.  Still, I come upon new and intriguing sources regularly that are small and focused, as opposed to the huge repositories that can be daunting, yet, they too have an appeal.  One of the largest, Google Arts and Culture, is well-organized.  With so many arts groups contributing to this platform, it could easily have become just a massive warehouse of images.  Instead, each contributor has one or more focused “exhibits.”  Since Oak Spring Garden Library in Virginia is among my favorite places, I’ll use it as an example.  It has five stories or exhibits, two on woman botanical artists, two on medicinal plants, and one on woodcut blocks used in printing the illustrations for Andrea Mattioli’s commentary on Dioscorides’s work on materia medica.  There are also two other ways to view images from this collection.  There’s a display of 214 of them, each of which can be enlarged with a click that also provides information about the image, and then there are images organized into six categories including plants, flowers, and butterflies.  This is just the contribution from Oak Spring.  Start investigating some of the other contributors, and you should have sources of inspiration and enjoyment to last you at least until a covid vaccine is widely distributed.

New York Public Library’s image collection has long been a leader in providing food for the eyes.  Now NYPL is one of many organizations using Mirador software that allows the viewer to easily scroll through an entire book and enlarge each page as desired.  While preparing this post, I went to the homepage and saw that several sketchbooks were featured, including three by Arioshi Kondo, a 19th-century century Japanese botanical artist.  Two of the pages are shown in the image above, and the associated information states that it is “free to use without restriction.”  Other great sources, particularly for historical materials are the Smithsonian Libraries and the Library of Congress site for Free to Use and Reuse Sets as well as its link to the World Digital Library.  The British Museum’s database for its permanent collection is huge, and if you need help in navigating it, Katherine Tyrell has a helpful blog post.  She is also responsible for the Botanical Art and Artists website, another amazing resource.

The European Union’s massive Europeana portal features wonderful exhibitions, some with botanical themes such as François Crépin and the Study of Wild RosesCrépin was a Belgian botanist who spent his life studying roses and working on a never-completed monograph on the world’s rose species.  He gave his herbarium of over 40,000 specimens to the Botanic Garden Meise where he was director.  However, he estimated that in all he had examined 100,000 specimens, many by visiting other herbaria or borrowing from them.  The eight parts of this exhibit are each brief but are visually interesting.  Another Europeana exhibit deals with Edible Plants from the Americas.  It’s in 11 parts and presents many classic botanical illustrations from Basilius Besler’s tomato to a cacao from Hans Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica.  This site is a reminder of how much the Americas contributed to European cuisine.  There are dozens of Europeana exhibits, and if you are willing to go off the botanical reservation, you can find some treats such as Echoes of an Empire, about Byzantine musical instruments through the ages.  The images here are essential for someone like myself, who had never heard of an idiophone or a membranophone.

Many wonderful exhibits exploring botanical history definitely need more light shone upon them.  Phaidra, which is the digital portal of the University of Padua, also has online exhibits, including one on Illustrated Herbals and another on its collection of 2,300 portraits of botanists.  This spring, the New York Botanical Garden Mertz Library had a display that was also mounted online, Black Botany: The Nature of Black Experience.  Curated by Rashad Bell and Nuala Caomhánach, it looks at the role African Americans played in the cultivation of five plants, each pictured with at least one specimen and illustration.  The peanut, Arachis hypogaea, naturally brings to mind George Washington Carver, but what I didn’t know was that he was also an artist.  There is a photograph of him, paint palette in hand, standing next to a floral painting.  Another entry is on the peacock flower Caesalpinia pulcherrima that enslaved women used as an abortifacient.

I’ll end with two more exhibits, both from the past but still available online.  The Royal Society’s Science Made Visible: Drawings, Prints, Objects tells the story of early research by the society’s fellows in images created to illustrate their work.  This was a 2018 event, but the catalogue is available as a free ebook and in another format on the Royal Society’s Google Arts and Culture portal.  Of course, Robert Hooke’s cells are here but also Robert Waller’s botanical studies of wildflowers as well as his color chart to document the colors of specimens.  Another great institution with wonderful botanical resources is the Dumbarton Oaks Library and Archives, which hosted a 2013 symposium on The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century resulting in an impressive edited volume (Batsaki et al., 2017).  The online exhibit gives a good introduction and is liberally illustrated with gems from the Dumbarton collection.  Like many good digital exhibits, this one is organized into sections, something comparable to a series of rooms or exhibit cases in a museum.  The first is to me the most spectacular.  Called “Illustration and Representation,” it includes works by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Paolo Boccone, and Mark Catesby, and there is an unassuming button marked “View More Information” that takes the user to the book where the image is found so the entire volume can be inspected.  A digital dream come true for those who can’t get enough feasts for the eye.


Batsaki, Calahan, & Tchikine. (2017). Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s