Finding Public Domain Historical Artwork for Your Home

I’m about to drop some NERD on you all. And of the most potent variety because LIBRARIAN NERD.

I’m frequently at a loss for what to hang on our walls. Sometimes I buy prints from artists on Etsy, sometimes elsewhere. I’m currently a little obsessed with a painter named Leslie Duke. I love the print I have in my kitchen, and my life may not be complete without a print of her painting “On Watch.” Sometimes, however, I like to go hunting in some other places.

When I was thinking about what I wanted for the guest bedroom, I kept coming back to the idea of finding some historical natural science/natural history prints to hang on the walls. It seemed like a nice way to balance out the feminine color of the walls and furniture and the quilt and keep the room from feeling too modern for a house built in 1900. If you’re not ready for a NERD bomb, I suggest you stop reading about…now.

There is a whole wealth of natural history material available from the 19th century. This was a period which saw the growth of science as a profession. Men who studied the natural world were called  “naturalists.” They produced large quantities of literature and there was great public demand for it. Naturalists went on lecture tours and were celebrities.

One of the most famous naturalists was John James Audubon, after whom the Audubon Society is named. His Birds of America, published on subscription between 1827 and 1838, included life-sized 435 watercolors of birdlife from across the continent. These plates were the result of field study; Audubon traveled to remote areas and hunted and killed the birds, then arranged the bodies with wires in order to draw and paint them with precision (the modus operandi of natural scientists in the 19th century).



The actual prints from the original published folios of Audubon’s Birds of America sell for thousands and thousands of dollars. However, the Audubon Society offers high resolution scans of the original plates. They are downloadable and printable. I’ve always had a bit of a thing for birds, and a bit of a thing for the Audubon plates, so when I found them available for high res download online, I started looking through the files to find one that would look nice in the work-in-progress guest room in our home.

I first looked at the Barn Owl, partially because Peter and I had just finished watching a documentary about them (I warned you about nerdiness, so if you’re taken by surprise at this point, it’s your fault). I didn’t, however, think the range of colors would look right in the room.


I also looked at the Barn Swallow, which is a bird I absolutely love. My grandmother actually had a small print of this plate in her home. All my life, I’ve loved watching them swoop and swing through the rafters. However, I wasn’t in love with the way the barn beam only filled the right side of the page in this particular plate.


I finally decided to go with the American Robin plate. I love the action and the colors, and I’ve always loved watching for the first robins of spring in the Midwest. They stick around through much of winter in Tennessee, but in Illinois, they were one of the first signs that winter was finally over.


I sent the file to Peter, who quickly edited the plate to take out some border lines that the scanner had left in. Then, I had it printed as an 8X10″ image. Though the images are high res, they can’t be stretched infinitely to make them huge, so if you want a giant plate print, you may still have to pay one of the companies that makes large reproductions. I framed it this week and it’s hanging in the guest room! Pictures to come soon; it was dark out when I finished the project and hung it up, so I’ll have to wait for a daylight moment at home to take photos.

This project was fun because I got to learn quite a bit about John James Audubon. American National Biography Online is an awesome resource, so if you have access to it through your public library, I suggest frequent use. I spent lots of time looking through the Audubon plates, which are all beautiful in their own ways. And finally, I got to find a historically appropriate print for our home and paid very, very little money for it.

Where else can you get high resolution historical images? Try your state historical society, as many of them produce high res scans and make them freely available. Many sites require that you request a high resolution file, but are often willing to send this file to you for free or for a small charge. Also, check out these places:

Digital Public Library of America

American Memory Collection: Library of Congress

New York Public Library (NYPL) Digital Collections

If you’re interested in natural history digital collections, or 19th and early 20th century agricultural advertisements, the National Agricultural Library’s digital collections are admittedly not very user friendly, and you have to request images, but there is some really cool stuff in there.

Works Consulted

Buckley, Michael G. “The Footsteps of Creative Energy”: John Burroughs and Nineteenth-Century Literary Natural History.” Atq 21, no. 4 (December 2007): 261-272. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 18, 2015).

“John James Audubon, the Naturalist”. 1854. “John James Audubon, the Naturalist”. The Illustrated Magazine of Art 3 (17). Thomas J. Watson Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 305–7.

Lucier, Paul. 2009. “The Professional and the Scientist in Nineteenth-century America”. Isis 100 (4). The University of Chicago Press: 699–732. doi:10.1086/652016.

National Audubon Society. “John James Audubon’s Birds of America.” National Audubon Society. Accessed November 18, 2015. .

Sterling, Kier B. “Audubon, John James.” In American National Biography Online. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Librarian friends, please forgive the lack of hanging indentation.