Art and Art History

Free-to-Use Images

What images are free to use, and when?

The teaching of art and art history relies on images. Images can be categorized for use in teaching as follows:

  • In the public domain: Works in the public domain are not subject to copyright protection and can be used just about anywhere for just about any purpose. Some creators offer their work to the public domain up front, but works more typically enter the public domain after their copyright term has expired. Note that the duration of copyright varies from country to country, so a work may be in the public domain in some countries but not others. Also note that because a distinction could be made between the rights status of a work of art and the rights status of a digital image made of that work, some institutions claim copyright over their digital images of works in their collection. The Public Domain Review calls these claims “highly questionable” and provides a good explainer on the subject.
  • Openly licensed: Some works under copyright may be openly licensed. Creative Commons licenses, for example, communicate up front how works may be used by others. See our explainer of Creative Commons licenses, and note that all Creative Commons licenses require you to provide attribution information for the work.
  • Fair use: The fair use doctrine provides guidance on using copyrighted work for purposes such as education. For guidance on applying this doctrine in the field of visual arts, the College Art Association provides a Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts.

Finding & Using Openly Licensed Images: A Quick Guide for Students is a resource that you and your students might find useful in determining what images are free to use.

Where can free-to-use images be found?

The College Art Association provides a list of image sources and rights clearance agencies. The list includes general information about the terms and conditions of image use at each institution, but be sure to review each institution’s own statements regarding image use. The following institutions may be especially useful:

OER @ CUNY

  • Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR)
    AHTR was created by Michelle Millar Fisher of the Graduate Center and Karen Shelby of Baruch College. It “is a peer-populated platform for educators who use visual and material culture in their teaching practice. Home to an evolving and collectively authored repository of open educational content, AHTR serves as a collaborative virtual community for art history instructors at all stages of their academic and professional careers.”
  • Introduction to the History of Modern Art
    This open course site is maintained by Sharon Jordan at Lehman College.

Open Books

  • American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity
    American Encounters provides a narrative of the history of American art that focuses on historical encounters among diverse cultures, upon broad structural transformations such as the rise of the middle classes and the emergence of consumer and mass culture, and on the fluid conversations between ‘high’ art and vernacular expressions. The text emphasizes the intersections among cultures and populations, as well as the exchanges, borrowings, and appropriations that have enriched and vitalized our collective cultural heritage.”
  • Art in Revolution: Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture
    “This open access book is the culminating product of an open pedagogy assignment. […] In this class we explored the ways in which images can shape and challenge dominant ideas and how some of the legacies of nineteenth century imagery can have relevance for us today.” The book includes written and artistic responses by students to case studies related to this theme, and it is part of the Public Domain Core Collection, a collaboration between Ryerson and Brock universities.
  • The Bright Continent: African Art History
    “This book aims to act as your map through the world of African art. As such, it will help you define the competencies you need to develop–visual analysis, research, noting what information is critical, asking questions, and writing down your observations–and provide opportunities for you to practice these skills until you are proficient. It will also expose you to new art forms and the worlds that produced them, enriching your understanding and appreciation.”
  • Computer Graphics and Computer Animation: A Retrospective Overview
    “This book was developed in an attempt to maintain in one location the information and references that point to the many important historical developments of the short life of the computer graphics world as we know it.”
  • Introduction to Art
    This text is an introduction to visual culture. According to the introduction, it is “intended to make you more visually sensitive to the world around you and to begin to understand your own aesthetic tastes and to seek out things that give you visual pleasure.”
  • Introduction to Art: Design, Context, and Meaning
    This book “offers a comprehensive introduction to the world of Art. Authored by four University System of Georgia faculty members with advance degrees in the arts, this textbooks offers up-to-date original scholarship. It includes over 400 high-quality images illustrating the history of art, its technical applications, and its many uses.”

Open Courses

  • Art Appreciation (Lumen Learning and SUNY OER)
    This introductory course “thoroughly investigates how quality is determined and created by artists in order to evaluate and appreciate art on a deeper level.”
  • Art History (Khan Academy)
    This online art history course ranges from prehistoric to contemporary art.
  • Roman Architecture (Open Yale)
    “This course is an introduction to the great buildings and engineering marvels of Rome and its empire, with an emphasis on urban planning and individual monuments and their decoration, including mural painting. While architectural developments in Rome, Pompeii, and Central Italy are highlighted, the course also provides a survey of sites and structures in what are now North Italy, Sicily, France, Spain, Germany, Greece, Turkey, Croatia, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, and North Africa. The lectures are illustrated with over 1,500 images, many from Professor Kleiner’s personal collection.”

Additional Open and Zero-Cost Resources

  • OER on Art History (OER Commons)
  • Open Arts Archive (The Open University)
    This archive provides “free access to a wealth of artistic, cultural and educational resources, including talks, seminars, study days, artists’ podcasts, artist interviews, curators’ talks and exhibitions.”
  • Smarthistory: The Center for Public Art History
    “Smarthistory takes you inside museums and outside to ancient temples and engages in conversations about how to interpret and understand the images you’re seeing. […] Smarthistory supports the ethical and open sharing of cultural knowledge. All of our resources are published under a Creative Commons non-commercial license and are available ad-free to anyone with an internet connection.”
  • Timeline of Art History (The Met)
    “Discover the story of art and global culture through The Met collection.”