It is estimated that the Royal Library’s graphic collection, which is kept at the Prints Department, contains more than one million objects, making it by far the largest collection of graphic works in Belgium and one of the finest in the world.
The Prints Department has a large and valuable collection of graphic works of all kinds and produced by all sorts of techniques: engravings, etchings, woodcuts, lithographs...
Over time, the word ‘print’ has become synonymous with every kind of image reproduced on paper, parchment or textile. Accordingly, as well as prints in the narrowest meaning of the word, the collections also include other ensembles. In addition to drawings and photographs, there are posters, bookplates, pilgrimage pennants and postcards.
The collection also includes illustrated books on art and works in which the images outweigh the text.
The former Low Countries have a prominent place in the development of graphic art and consequently, it is not surprising that the Flemish and Dutch schools are particularly well represented in our collection. In addition, since its founding, the Prints Department has systematically collected the graphic work of Belgian artists.
Highlights of the collection include drawings and prints by and after masters such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Pieter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, James Ensor and Léon Spilliaert. The Prints Department also holds a number of smaller graphic ensembles and drawings of the French, German, Italian, British and Spanish schools.
Non-Western schools are also represented in our collection, including an important ensemble of Japanese prints and an exceptional collection of Congolese drawings dating from the first half of the 20th century.
Expanding the collection
The collection has grown through purchases, donations and long-term loans. Living Belgian artists and historical documents connected to Belgium and Belgian communities have priority above other acquisitions for practical reasons and due to the limits of our budget.
Moreover, we are attempting to fill in the gaps in our collection, especially those related to prints produced in Belgium and the southern regions of the former Low Countries.
Many of the documents in the collection are very fragile and they cannot be displayed permanently to the public, which is why the Prints Department regularly organises exhibitions based on its collections, both inside the Library and elsewhere.
The Fin-de-Siècle Museum in Brussels has a permanent exhibition that features a number of works on paper, all from the extensive collections of the Royal Library. The pieces on display date from the period between 1880 and 1914.
Works from the Prints Department are also often lent to prestigious exhibitions, both in Belgium and abroad.
Studio for conservation
The Department is systematically restoring its historical collections. The oldest, most fragile and rarest pieces have priority, although pieces we lend to exhibitions are given restoration treatment before they leave the Library.