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Prints and Photographs Department

The world’s biggest picture collection, unique for its wealth of material on past centuries, and a living museum of contemporary art.
Collections on the following topics are available for consultation in the Prints and Photographs Department (département des Estampes et de la photographie):
Parc de Saint-Cloud, 1909-1911. Eugène Atget

Parc de Saint-Cloud, 1909-1911. Eugène Atget

The department has some 15 million graphic materials of a wide variety of types: drawings, prints, photographs, posters, labels, postcards, fabric samples, playing cards, etc.

Each year, it collects around 40,000 pieces of the following:

  • works by French engravers and photographers
  • the best of foreign output
  • a representative sample of domestic output of mass-produced pictures (posters, postcards, religious and incidental images, and commercial images)

It also offers an extensive library collection on techniques and the historical and artistic development of prints, photography, posters and images.

Documents are arranged according to a classification system consisting of 25 series, with collections organized using a dual artistic and documentary approach.

To be noted

  • The department is home to the editorial staff of Nouvelles de l’estampe, the journal of the National Committee for French Engraving (Comité national de la Gravure française).
  • The department organizes the Prix Lacourière, awarded every two years to a copperplate engraver aged 45 or under in the year of entry.
  • The department is associated with two prizes awarded by the “Gens d’images” association: the Prix Nadar for a piece of photographic work and the Prix Niepce for the work of a photographer aged 35 or under and resident in France.
  • Since 1994, the department has housed the Société française de Photographie.

le règlement du prix Lacourière 2014 [fichier .pdf – 65 Ko – 05/12/11 – 1 p.]

History of the department

The Cabinet des Estampes was formed in 1667 when the King’s Library acquired 120,000 prints brought together by Michel de Marolles. From 1648 onwards, Jacques Dupuy, guardian of the Royal Library, extended the compulsory deposit scheme, introduced for books in 1537, to prints. However, under Colbert, only a few hundred units were collected under this legal arrangement.

“Estampes de privilège” were deposited from 1672 onwards (these were authoritative deeds granting permission to print and protecting copyright).

In 1720, the Cabinet became a department of the King’s Library. Its collections grew rapidly, absorbing the considerable portrait collection of Nicolas Clément, a guardian of the Cabinet (1712), followed by that of Roger de Gaignières (1716), the Marquis of Béringhen’s collection of prints by masters (1731), the topographical and portrait collection of the farmer-general, Lallemant de Betz (1753), and the history collection of Pierre Fevret de Fontette (1773). Revolutionary confiscations added the Minister Bertin’s Chinese collections and collections from various congregations, including in particular that of the Abbey of Saint-Victor, prints brought together by the Jesuits of Cologne, and the personal collections of the King, the Queen, Monsieur and Madame Victoire, and numerous émigrés.

The library continued to grow at a sustained pace in the 19th century, through both the legal deposit scheme and the addition of a large number of private collections (e.g. the historical collections of Hennin and the Baron de Vinck and the artistic collections of Moreau-Nélaton and Atherton Curtis), and in the 20th century via the addition of contemporary works (by Duchamp, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Matisse, Hélion, Baselitz, Sam Francis, Barry Flanagan, Antoni Tàpies, etc.).

From 1851 onwards, photographers began to voluntarily deposit their output (the legal deposit scheme for photographs was not introduced until 1925). The collections were expanded via the addition of work by photographers from studio collections and press agencies, testifying of the history of photography and photographic practices: they include work by Nadar, Le Gray, Disdéri, Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Diane Arbus, Mario Giacomelli, Manuel Alvarez-Bravo, etc.

The department has been based in the hôtel Tubeuf at the Richelieu Library (Site Richelieu) since 1946.

For more info

History of the BnF

Thursday, October 2, 2014


Sylvie Aubenas
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