The collection of prints and drawings in the HLMD encompasses around 50,000 works on paper: drawings, pastels, watercolours and gouaches, medieval manuscripts and miniatures, prints, posters and photographs. The collection’s international reputation is founded on its holdings of old master drawings and with its important examples of the early woodcuts and engravings. The focus of the holdings from the 19th century is on drawings of the Romantic. The 20th century is prominently represented with Art Nouveau, German Expressionism as well as prints from the 1960s and early 1970s. Emphasis is also placed on the works of Joseph Beuys and his students. The collection is still be added to with contemporary works.
The study room makes up the heart of the collection. Interested visitors can request original works during the opening hours. Because of paper’s sensitivity to light, these works cannot be shown on a permanent basis, and for this reasons regular temporary exhibitions are presented in the Karl Freund Gallery.
Seen in terms of cultural and intellectual history, Darmstadt’s collection of prints and drawings is a child of the Enlightenment that originated with a princely collection. The future Grand Duke Ludewig I began collecting around 1800. He acquired nearly the whole of Albrecht Dürer’s and Rembrandt’s printed oeuvre in 1802 and inherited rare illuminated manuscripts from Baron von Hüpsch in 1805. He was able to acquire the collection of Emmerich Joseph, Duc de Dalberg, in 1812, which included around 1,500 Italian, French, German and Netherlandish drawings from the 15th to 18th centuries. As such, exemplary works of nearly all the famous old masters of the art of drawing are represented in the collection.
Further important convolutes are devoted to South German painters of the 19th century, for example Carl Philipp Fohr, August Lucas, Johann Heinrich Schilbach, Karl Rottmann and Moritz von Schwind. In 1907, 76 drawings by Arnold Böcklin were donated to the collection.
The collection suffered a number of major losses during the Nazi dictatorship as a result of sales made from the holdings as well works confiscated in conjunction with the “Degenerate Art” action. Other works were destroyed during the bombing of Darmstadt in 1944. Efforts were made to compensate for these losses after the Second World War, especially in the field of German Expressionist. Art Nouveau has again been at the forefront of collecting activities since 1960 and in 1972 Karl Ströher donated a extensive group of American Minimal and Pop prints. Acquisitions from recent decades have often stood in connection with the “Block Beuys”, for example the six folios making up “Joseph Beuys adds six chapters to 'Ulysses' at James Joyce's request” (1958 - 1961) featuring a total of 355 drawings in addition to convolutes of works by Dieter Roth, Bernhard Johannes Blume, Franz Erhard Walter, Imi Knoebel and Blinky Palermo.
The collection moreover features posters, photographs as well as special sections dedicated to ex-libris, commercial graphics and the so-called “Hofmeister Collection” featuring historical portraits and topographical views relating to the State of Hesse.