Découvrez les bibliothèques de la Ville de Genève
Toute l'offre culturelle

  • La Bibliothèque de Genève déploie sur 4 sites un patrimoine écrit, imprimé, musical et iconographique unique qu’elle sélectionne, protège, valorise et transmet au grand public comme au public scientifique.
  • Site internet de la Bibliothèque de Genève

  • Les Bibliothèques municipales sont des lieux de rencontre, de découverte et de partage qui vous proposent de nombreux documents à emprunter ainsi que des activités gratuites pour petit-e-s et grand-e-s.
  • Site Internet des Bibliothèques municipales

  • Les musées d’art et d’histoire, le Musée d’ethnographie et le Museum d’histoire naturelle, les Conservatoires et Jardin botaniques et le Fond municipal d’art contemporain proposent un accès à leur bibliothèque scientifique .
  • Site internet

  • Vous avez une question et vous souhaitez une réponse personnalisée? Le réseau des bibliothèques genevoises vous offre, en moins de trois jours, un résultat fiable et des sources identifiées.
  • Service Interroge


"Portraits d’hommes illustres dans l’ancienne Bibliothèque publique du Collège", Jean-Jacques Dériaz, 1873, Bibliothèque de Genève, inv. CIG 0203

The collections of the Bibliothèque de Genève

In 1702 the Bibliothèque was transferred to the grande salle, or main hall, of the Collège (today’s collège Calvin) and it is from that year that we can date the emergence of a genuine public management policy in Geneva for the city’s collections of paintings, art objects and “curios.” This first “museum” had a number of treasures on display, including portraits of famous men, which any visitor to the hall could now admire. In that regard the city also moved the panels of Conrad Witz’s celebrated altarpiece, to the Bibliothèque in 1732. One of those panels shows a cardinal-bishop of Geneva, incorrectly identified at the time as Jean de Brogny (the paintings now hang in the Musée d’art et d’histoire). The collections quickly grew to include contemporary views of Geneva and rare maps. We should also mention the 4 panoramic views by the painter Robert Gardelle that the miniaturist Jacques-Antoine Arlaud offered to his native city in 1743, and the famous map of Geneva and its surroundings donated to the institution by the map’s creator, Jacques-Barthélemy Micheli du Crest (1690-1766).

The documentary approach

The year 1843 is significant in the history of Genevan collections because it saw the consecration of an important division, namely between items of a documentary nature, which went to the Bibliothèque, and works that were considered to be an esthetic expression and therefore the care and responsibility of the Société des arts, which would be succeeded by the Musée d’art et d’histoire in the early 20th century. One group of artworks that included the Witz panels was recognized as being a token of local art history and was transferred to the Musée Rath, which had been built only a few years earlier. In the same spirit, the Société des arts exchanged the pastel that Liotard had left to his native city in his will—the so-called “bearded” self-portrait with the artist decked out in a grand Turkish outfit—for another of the same subject, the so-called “red cap” self-portrait, which at the time was deemed a minor work artistically, although sufficient for documenting the great local artist.

"Autoportrait dit « au bonnet rouge »", Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1767-1768, Bibliothèque de Genève, inv. CIG 0072

Redefining the picture collections of the Bibliothèque de Genève in the 19th century

The opening of a host of museums in Geneva before the First World War—the Musée académique (1819), the Musée Rath (1826), the Musée d’histoire naturelle and the Musée archéologique (1872), the Musée d’ethnographie (1901), the Musée d’art et d’histoire (1910)—would increasingly strip the Bibliothèque of a large part of its collections of rare items, including its prints and medals. The portraits of famous men (1952 was the year that Rousseau’s death mask was acquired), engraved and lithographic views of Geneva (a print department was created in 1904), and regional maps would now constitute the Bibliothèque’s areas of excellence, which it began to develop thanks to purchases and donations from Genevan families. Thematically, the Bibliothèque’s strong points are the iconography pertaining to the Protestant Reformers (displayed in part at the Musée international de la Réforme since 2005) and to Rousseau (the library boasts the main collection of Rousseau iconography in Europe, alongside the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale of France). To this we can add the collections d’affiches, which began to take shape when the legal deposit was instituted, and as such represent separate picture collections. Finally, we should bear in mind that a large part of Genevan iconography, notably in the scientific field, resides in the illustrations of books in the general collections and does not figure in the collections of the Centre d’iconographie genevoise.

Starting in the late 18th century, but above all during the 19th, sculpture (busts and medals) and photography were added to paintings and prints. Photography, however, played only a minor role in the acquisitions policy of the former department in charge of the Bibliothèque’s picture collection (save for the Susan Farkas Collection, which was acquired in 1997). Yet even without any stated desire or intention to build a collection, a range of items, albums, and picture collections acquired over the years essentially for thematic reasons—e.g., Jean-Gabriel Eynard’s daguerreotypes, long conserved at the Musée d’histoire des sciences—gradually came together to form a valuable collection chronicling the developments that local photography went through from its earliest days. Moreover, for many years the institution benefited from the little interest the market took in the medium. This is how the oldest photograph of the city that can be precisely dated was identified in the Bibliothèque’s collections, a view of the building site of the Bel-Air indoor market taken in 1842.

The former collections of the Documents department of Old Geneva

In reaction to the urban renewal work that was changing the face of the city beginning in the 1850s, destroying many significant buildings while remaking entire neighborhoods, the documentary image at the close of the 19th and the start of the 20th century assumed a social and cultural value that it had never had previously. It was during this period that the notion of Old Geneva was born. The term refers to the city before 1846 and the razing of its fortifications. While the picture collections of the Bibliothèque de Genève have always had a humanist character—galleries of portraits and idealized views of the city—the photographs being shot then were meant as archeology and aimed to faithfully reflect a world that was at risk of disappearing in a very short time. Endeavors to take stock, to draw up an archeological or architectural record, to make a casting of rare objects, and of course to take photographs were increasingly common. The most significant initiatives springing from this interest in the city would certainly include both the creation of a relief map of Geneva by Auguste Magnin in 1850, which was exhibited at the 1896 Swiss National Exhibition, and the publication of Frédéric Boissonnas's photographic records (1897 – 1907), which were collected under the title Anciennes maisons de Genève (Old houses of Geneva).

"Chantier de démolition de la Porte de Neuve", photographe anonyme, 1855, Bibliothèque de Genève, inv. CIG VG P 0631

The creation of the Department of Old Geneva

The movement took an institutional turn in 1907 with the founding of a municipal department dedicated to Old Geneva that was created to document and, when possible, conserve tokens of the historical city. Originally directed by the architect Camille Martin, one of the authors of Anciennes maisons de Genève, the new institution was the recipient of an important donation in 1909, the collections of the Association du Musée suisse de photographies documentaires (the Association of the Swiss Museum of Documentary Photographs), which had been founded in 1901 at the initiative of the keeper of the rare coins collection, Eugène Demole. At the time this involved over 20,000 items, both negatives and prints of various Swiss and Genevan subjects, which were to form the heart of the new department’s collections. Initially “Old Geneva” was conserved at the Bibliothèque de Genève, but in 1912 it was added to the Musée d’art et d’histoire. Indeed its mission extended beyond the mere picture collections, which were managed by the Documents department. The latter was headed by Ernest Renard, assistant to the new keeper of Old Geneva and the future cantonal archeologist Louis Blondel. The Documents department of Old Geneva was given a building of its own in 1929 along the Promenade du Pin, which was refurbished in 1951. The department later moved to the Pont-d’Arve location in 1993. Since 1986 the institution has had a remarkable exhibition venue at the Maison Tavel, which has brought a new dynamism to Old Geneva (the Bernard Naef Donation, 1985).

"L’ancienne salle du Vieux-Genève au Musée d’art et d’histoire", photographe anonyme, juin 1980, Bibliothèque de Genève, inv. CIG VG N24x36 555/17

The topographic approach and the photograph collections

While the connection with the Musée enriched the collections with pieces that partly overlap the Bibliothèque’s own collections—the oldest view of Geneva conserved in the collections of the Centre d’iconographie genevoise, a pen-and-ink drawing that can be dated to the 1540s, was purchased by the Musée in 1992—archeology and more importantly architecture are Old Geneva’s strong suit. In 1907, with the advent of the official separation of Church and State, the Saint-Pierre collection was formed, bringing together ground plans and iconographic items from Geneva’s cathedral. The department quickly assembled a body of documents on both the old and the modern city that is without equal, conserved in a picture library that continues to grow. The classification system is completely dominated by the topographical approach common to archeological and architectural studies, and allows users to quickly find items pertaining to a single building and its evolution over time.

In the tradition of Demole’s museum, photography continues to play a central role in the growth of collections. Until the postwar period, the department followed a targeted policy of documenting buildings that were being torn down. Starting in the 1950s, however, acquiring collections that were already formed became the department’s main approach. The collections comprise for the most part stores of documents provided by photographers’ studios, the press, and businesses (portrait photographers, publishers of postcards, newspapers and press agencies). They bear witness to a golden age of photography when the number of active professionals in the city was significant, in particular because of Geneva’s standing internationally in the 1920s. These collections of rare photographs notably include the archives of Genevan photographers, which often have only been partly conserved. The photographers’ names make for an impressive list: Charles Edouard Boesch, Jean-Guillaume Cadoux, Mick Desarzens, Louis Dumas, Charles-Gustave and Pierre-Charles George, the Albert Grivel Studio, Agence Interpresse, the publishers Jaeger and Jullien Frères, Frank-Henri Jullien, André Kern, Max Kettel, Valentine Mallet, Victor-Louis Neri, Jean Netuschil, Le Pool Photos, Jacques Thévoz, Maurice Wassermann, and Joseph Zimmer-Meylan. To their photo archives we can add the rich bodies of work that various businesses amassed, notably Cuénod, Sécheron and the Services industriels de Genève (SIG).

"Le cortège de l’Escalade passant devant les maisons médiévales en démolition à Coutance", Jeanne Joséphine Marie Valentine Mallet, 1er juin 1903, Bibliothèque de Genève, inv. CIG AES N09x12 574

Increasing importance of photography and the contemporary collections

Interest in technique was to evolve with the growing importance of photography generally in the closing decades of the 20th century. Prized until then for its documentary support alone—great attention was paid to original black-and-white negatives—the medium would be increasingly collected for its intrinsic qualities. This new orientation now saw the institution not only putting together at the Maison Tavel, with their accompanying publications, important exhibitions that focused on collections by Genevan photographers; but also restoring rare photographic prints found in the collections though often ill served by classification systems that paid scant attention to their value.

Another effect of the renewed interest in photography has meant that the library has been acquiring pieces by contemporary photographers, although the numbers are still modest. Thus, certain photos have entered the collections which are the work of such contemporaries as Jacques Berthet, Nicolas Crispini, François de Limoges, Christiane Grimm, Alan Humerose, Didier Jordan, Alain Julliard, Denis Jutzeler, Antonio Masolotti, Claudio Merlini, Fausto Pluchinotta, and Charles Weber.

"Graffiti anti-G8 sur les palissades de protection de la Banque cantonale de Genève", Fausto Pluchinotta, juin 2003, Bibliothèque de Genève, inv. CIG IG 2003-003 P 18

For further information:

A summary of the main activities and acquisitions of the Centre d’iconographie has been published in the Annual Account, which has since become the Annual Report of the Bibliothèque publique et universitaire of Geneva (today the Bibliothèque de Genève), Geneva, 1879-2008.

Danielle Buyssens, with the assistance of Sabina Engel and Christine Falcombello, “Galerie de portraits et collections iconographiques,” Patrimoines de la Bibliothèque de Genève. Un état des lieux au début du 21e siècle, selected and edited by Danielle Buyssens, Thierry Dubois, Jean-Charles Giroud and Barbara Roth-Lochner, Geneva: Éditions Slatkine, 2006, 146-167.

A regular column on the activities and acquisitions of the Documentary department of Old Geneva and subsequently the Centre d’iconographie genevoise (starting in 1993) appeared in the Musée d’art et d’histoire review Genava (1923-2008).

Estelle Sohier and Ursula Baume-Cousam, "Musée, histoire et photographie, le cas de Genève : sur les traces du Musée suisse de photographies documentaires (1901-1909)," La mémoire des images. Autour de la Collection iconographique vaudoise, ed. Anne Lacoste, Silvio Corsini, Olivier Lugon, Gollion: Infolio, 2015, p. 168-193.

Passage de la Tour 2
1205 Genève

T: +41 22 418 46 70
F: +41 22 418 46 71

Monday to Friday: 9 am – 12 am (by appointment)

Nicolas Schätti
T: +41 22 418 46 77