Hans Holbein the Younger, “Sir Thomas More” (1527) (The Frick Collection, photo by Michael Bodycomb)

A new database launched by an international consortium of art institutions is working to grant internet users unprecedented access to dozens of art historical photo archives, which capture multiple images of a single artwork over time. Collectively known as PHAROS, the group is gradually digitizing millions of images, many of which are previously unpublished and accessible only through physical visits to individual research repositories. The 14 institutions involved include the Frick Collection (which is leading the project), Rome’s Bibliotheca Hertziana, the Courtauld Institute, Getty Research Institute, Paris’s Institut national d’histoire de l’art, Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, and the Yale Center for British Art.

President of PHAROS Inge Reist (photo by Michael Bodycomb)

At its completion, Pharos will exist as a searchable database of about 25 million images, most of which are of actual art objects from all over the world; other images consist of supplementary material, such as x-ray photos taken during conservation, or photos of the back of a painting. You may currently sift through over 158,000 images, from eight of the partner institutions, searching by an artwork’s date, artist, dimensions, medium, and more.

All this information will help you track various copies of a single artwork by different artists. As PHAROS’ president, Inge Reist (also the Frick’s Director of the Center for the History of Collecting) told the New York Times, a painting of Sir Thomas More illustrates the database’s purpose well. The original 1527 portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger hangs in the Frick, while other copies by Holbein and other painters belong in multiple public and private collections; PHAROS brings images of them together in one place, including those that have never before been printed in publications.

Pharos’s database is aimed primarily aimed at scholars — although it is freely available for all to use — and is dedicated to uploading a work’s attribution and provenance as well as conservation, exhibition, and bibliographic histories. Material from photo archives are typically images mounted on cardboard, which also records captions from art historians who have shared their thoughts on the object over time, and all of this written text will be digitized, providing users with access to unique commentary. Researchers who have particular images they’d like to search for can also upload them to the PHAROS database, which will perform an image search to find multiple images of the same artwork.

Left: 16th c. copy after Hans Holbein the Younger’s “Sir Thomas More” (Collection of J. R. More-Molyneux Esq, Loseley Park, England, ©Courtauld Institute of Art, negative no. B60/1616); right: copy after Hans Holbein the Younger’s “Sir Thomas More” (Collection of the Duke of Beaufort, Badminton, England, ©Courtauld Institute of Art, negative no. B60/1587)

First established in the late 19th century, photoarchives were much-needed resources for scholars whose art history books often had little to no illustrations. The Frick Collection was home to the very first photoarchive in the United States, thanks to the initiative of its founder’s daughter.

“As early as 1922, Helen Clay Frick personally organized international photographic expeditions to record significant and rarely reproduced works of art, creating the first-ever public repository of its kind in the country,” Ian Wardropper, director of The Frick Collection, said in a statement. She had commissioned photographers to capture over 55,000 pictures of artworks; today, the museum’s photoarchives hold over 1.2 million images.

PHAROS plans to upload seven million images online from its 14 partners by 2020. While the current institutions are all based in North America and Europe, the database will eventually expand to include records from more photoarchives around the world.

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...