In order to help meet picture research needs in the early 20th century, librarians culled portraits from the Print Collection and arranged them alphabetically by subject. The resulting Portrait File collection includes over 71,500 images of notable figures, mainly in American, British, and European history, from ancient times through the time of compilation. As of the mid 20th century, these files are no longer being added to.
A collection comprised largely of images clipped from newspapers and periodical publications (in English, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and other languages) from the 19th through the early decades of the 20th century, the Portrait File also includes occasional examples of original woodcuts, engravings, etchings, lithographs, and photographs. A few works even stem from the the 18th century and earlier. Together the images document the rise and distribution during the 19th and 20th centuries of printed portraits in the United States and abroad.
The collection contains a wide array of biographical images related to its approximately 35,000 subjects. These include portraits; political cartoons and caricatures; silhouettes; likenesses captured in sculpture, monuments, coins, and medallions; scenes from life; homes and favorite places; manuscripts, art work, letters, possessions; deaths, funerals, burials, graves; and memorial events and commemorations.
Collection coverage is particularly strong of the British and European monarchy and noble class, European and American military leaders, American presidents and politicians, major personalities of New York City politics and life, and of the luminaries in arts and culture in the Americas and abroad. While collection subjects are mainly male, women, especially as holders of hereditary titles, as authors, or as family members of other portrait subjects, make up a significant portion of the collection. The collection documents also a diverse global population including people of African, Asian, and Latin American descent.
In telling the stories of its many subjects, The Portrait File also covers the major milestones of British, European and American history to the early 20th century, giving researchers myriad biographical, historical, and pictorial currents to follow.
Organization is alphabetically by portrait subject. When a subject is represented by many images, it is divided into topical subcategories. Napoleon I, for example, is represented by 1,359 items arranged into 58 topical subcategories such as “As a young officer” and “Campaigns & battles--1804-1805.” About half of the subjects, like Danish poet and novelist Jeppe Aakjær, are represented with just one image.