In 1857, Gustave Courbet shocked the Paris Salon when he exhibited Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine, a sumptuous depiction of two working class women lounging alongside the famed river. With their sensual gazes and provocatively arrayed dresses, Courbet’s subjects scandalized viewers; a critic even referred to the work as “frightful.”
Now, in a sign of the changing times, the public institution that oversees 14 major museums in Paris is helping audiences around the world easily access and enjoy Courbet’s notorious painting—along with a trove of other important artworks. As Valentina Di Liscia reports for Hyperallergic, Paris Musées has made 100,000 digital reproductions of works held by the city’s museums available free of charge.
The images were released under the Creative Commons Zero license, meaning that the files have been dedicated to the public domain “as completely as possible.” Visitors to the Paris Musées collections portal can now download a file that contains a high-resolution digital version of a given artwork, details about the image, and a guide for using and citing it. Works still under copyright can also be downloaded through the portal but are only available as low-resolution images.
Paris Musées, which manages such diverse institutions as the Petit Palais, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Maison de Balzac and the Catacombs, began making its collections accessible online in 2016. To date, more than 320,000 images—a substantial portion of the roughly one million works held by the organization’s museums—have been digitized.
“From archaeology to fashion and contemporary art, the collections are remarkably diverse and they are still being digitized,” Philippe Rivière, head of communication and digital at Paris Musées, tells Douglas McCarthy of Europeana.
Rivière says the organization has been “working on its open access strategy for some time,” inspired in part by the OpenGLAM movement, which seeks to promote open access for cultural heritage.
Paris Musées often receives image usage requests from researchers, educators and students. Waiving its copyright interests in such images “guarantees that our digital files can be freely accessed and reused by anyone or everyone, without any technical, legal or financial restraints, whether for commercial use or not,” notes Paris Musées in a statement quoted by Di Liscia.
Perusing the collections portal, users can find images of works by the giants of art history: a serene landscape by Monet, Delacroix’s impassioned depiction of Hercules battling the centaur Nessus and Cezanne’s portrait of the art dealer Ambroise Vollard. (Given the fact that he posed for the painting for two full weeks, staying absolutely still at the artist’s command, Vollard looks understandably tense.) But there are plenty of hidden gems, too, like a late 19th-century photograph of French journalist and feminist Caroline Rémy.
Paris Musées will stage digital exhibitions on its website to help users discover the open access works. The first highlights grisaille paintings—rendered in shades of grey and often modeled to create the illusion of a relief—held by the Maison de Victor Hugo. The technique was popular during the 1880s, and grisaille paintings were often featured in illustrated editions of the Les Misérables author’s works.
In the future, Paris Musées may make its open access artworks available on platforms such as Wikimedia Commons.
“[W]e’ll be announc[ing] partnerships to help us disseminate our images beyond our own platform,” Rivière tells McCarthy, “so look out for more details soon.”