The Photoarchive comprises more than one million study photographs and other reproductions divided into national schools and representing more than 40,000 artists of Europe and the Americas. The photographs record paintings, drawings, and sculpture.

This collection has been systematically built through purchases and gifts from photographers, museums, scholars, and dealers in the United States and Europe. More than 57,000 original negatives were created for the Photoarchive between 1922 and 1967 in a pioneering project to photograph works of art in private homes and small public collections throughout the United States, historic monuments in remote areas of Italy, and works sold at London auctions between 1921 and 1932.

To facilitate object-oriented research, the Library actively acquires multiple photographs of the same work of art to document changes in condition and appearance over time. Photographs of preparatory drawings, versions, copies, pastiches, and forgeries — materials often overlooked in the literature — are also collected. Many of the photographs in the collection are rare images of works that have since been lost, stolen, or destroyed.

A composite image of three photographs of the same painting depicting the Virgin Mary and Christ Child at different stages of conservation.

This example shows three states of a painting all documented in the Frick Art Reference Library's Photoarchive. Follower of Jan Gossaert van Mabuse (c. 1478–c. 1532), The Holy Family, oil on panel, 51.4 x 36.5 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, inv. no. 59.27. Photograph sources (from left to right): A) Photograph from 1920s: unidentified photographer, purchased through Mme. Brière; B) Photograph from 1930s: Van Diemen-Lilienfeld Galleries, Inc., New York.; C) Photograph from 1980s: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston