Public domain images: what even are they? Well, in the simplest terms, they’re free images you can use for anything you want, so it’s a good idea to get acquainted with these beautiful creatures.
More specifically, public domain images are those whose copyright has expired, has been forfeited, or otherwise doesn’t apply. The public, therefore, owns them. Public domain images include historical photographs, vintage advertisements, and precious works of art—and today, we’re delighted to present a few of our favorite corners of the internet for digging up public-property gems.
(Disclaimer! As always, make sure to double-check the license of any image you download off the internet. Even after vetting by your friendly neighborhood PicMonkey, better safe than lawsuit.)
Libraries and museums
In recent years, a growing number of libraries, art galleries, and museums have opened their collections to the public. That means that now, you can get you can get your own digital copies of hard-to-find photographs and famous works of art—often at high resolutions.
Only the fanciest for you, dear PicMonkeyers.
The government’s got your backs, civilian image-seekers. Featuring art both famous and not-as-much, the NGA Images page within the National Gallery of Art contains more than 45,000 open access images. Navigate by new images, most requested images, or search.
If you’re anything like us, you think it’d be cool to visit Yale University’s art gallery (free and open to the public), but said gallery is thousands of miles away. Try the online version! As we’ve written before, its wide-ranging collection includes Hokusai and Monet, so there’s someart for everyone.
In describing the breadth of the Getty’s Open Content Program, we can’t do any better than the Getty’s own site:
Currently, there are more than 99,000 images from the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute available through the Open Content Program, including more than 72,000 from the Research Institute’s Foto Arte Minore archive […] Over time, images from the Getty Conservation Institute will be added, as well as more images from the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute.
Uh, that is SO MANY IMAGES. All in sweet, sweet public domain harmony. And a perusal of their archives can lead you to some fairly familiar faces …
Okay, it’s an albumen silver print of the Mona Lisa as drawn by Millet, but still! Mona looks stunning.
Don’t end your tour of artsy public domain images without stopping by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A simple box beside their search bar provide the option to search their collections for public domain images only.
Vintage posters and illustrations
They just don’t make ‘em like they used to, do they? Oldies but goodies, this curio cabinet of vintage illustrations is sure to inspire you.
Viintage is decidedly clunky in design, with an “important site update” from March 2015 that dominates the front page, but if you scroll past it, you’ll find WWII Allied propaganda, Mucha-style ads, paper dolls, and more.
Here’s how to navigate: Head to “Free Downloads” in the top bar. Each image in this section is a link to a gallery of similar images, often high-res. For a reminder of the beauty and detail that were once a part of such everyday items as cigarette boxes and fashion plates, Viintage is a good stop.
What’s sweet about this archive of drawings, paintings, nature illustrations, and vintage ads is that the owner has written detailed commentary for many of the images. This gives the site a homey feel, like you’re digging through the postcard collection of a favorite aunt or neighbor over delicious tea snacks.
The Public Domain Review is a great spot to hit up if you’ve been feeling restless, bored, or uninspired. An online journal dedicated to sharing and celebrating the public domain, its image collections are accompanied by detailed articles that contextualize what you’re looking at. One of the few sites we’ve seen where the commenters are as knowledgeable as the contributors.
The new public domain
Not all public domain images are things of the past. Some have been donated into the public domain by generous, and often quite talented, photographers and graphic designers. Varying in size from dozens to hundreds of images, here’s a handful of our favorite modern public domain galleries.
A photographer and graphic designer from Georgia created this repository for images in the public domain. Little but fierce, this archive isn’t strictly modern: it’s divided into Modern, Vintage, and Weekly images.
Life of Pix is a curated collection of images donated to the public domain. If a photographer’s work is accepted, their photos are added to the site’s 85 pages of images. Happy hunting!
Another collection of donated works, Snapwire Snaps is the public domain baby sibling of Snapwire, a royalty-free photo service. The site features crisp images of food, people, architecture, and landscapes, with a clearly marked public domain license beneath each photo. Best of all, with some digging, every now and then you encounter a truly original image.
With its circa-2000 thumbnails and less-than-inspiring category photos, PicDrome doesn’t look all that inspiring. But don’t be fooled: this archive of donated public domain images is killer. Not only does it offer over 800 high-quality images, it has one major advantage over its free-to-be-you-and-me peers—that of a clear organizational structure.