Iconclass is a classification system designed for art and iconography. It is the most widely accepted scientific tool for the description and retrieval of subjects represented in images (works of art, book illustrations, reproductions, photographs, etc.) and is used by museums and art institutions around the world. The Iconclass system is managed by the Henri van de Waal Foundation and accessible through the Iconclass Browser.

History of Iconclass

Iconclass was developed by Henri van de Waal (1910-1972), Professor of Art History at the University of Leiden. His ideas for a systematic overview of subjects, themes and motifs in Western art, which later became the Iconclass system, took shape in the early 1950s. The complete Iconclass system was finished in the years after 1972 by a large group of scholars and was published between 1973 and 1985 by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), of which Van de Waal was a member. The publication was followed by the development of several computerized editions of Iconclass by the University of Utrecht in the years 1990 to 2001.

Numerous institutions across the world use Iconclass to describe and classify their collections in a standardized manner. In turn, users ranging from art historians to museum visitors use Iconclass to search and retrieve images from these collections. And as a research tool, Iconclass is also used to identify the significance of entire scenes or individual elements represented within an image. Iconclass applications used around the world have made it the most widely accepted classification system for visual documents.

In October 2001, the Iconclass management was transferred to the KNAW. The KNAW was actively involved in supporting Iconclass translation projects. The multilingual Iconclass Libertas Browser became freely accessible as default online browser for Iconclass in November of 2004. In September 2006, the Iconclass management was transferred to the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History in The Hague. In cooperation with the RKD, Etienne Posthumus and Hans Brandhorst developed the new Iconclass Browser which was launched on 10 November 2009.

Handover of Iconclass to the Henri van de Waal Foundation

As of 2022, the RKD has handed over management of Iconclass to the Henri van de Waal Foundation. The RKD supports the mission of the Henri van de Waal Foundation, facilitating ‘the study of image content, visual communication, and digital art history’. This foundation is planning to establish a consortium wherein institutions and other stakeholders can participate, also to ensure a sustainable and open source Iconclass-platform for the future.

Although the handover of the Iconclass management marks the end of RKD’s day-to-day involvement, the RKD continues to use Iconclass to enrich its collections, including RKDimages and RKDlibrary. The RKD will also continue advocating for connecting data through thesaurus sources. Not only is the RKD actively involved in the AAT-NED, it is also the owner of RKDartists, available as Linked Open Data.