The foundations of the collection of Western European graphic arts in Tartu University Library were laid two centuries ago, when an art museum was established at the newly reopened Tartu University in 1803. The first head of the museum was Professor Johann Karl Simon Morgenstern (1770–1852), an inspired lover of art and tireless collector of artworks. In addition to other art treasures, he assembled a valuable collection of Western European works of graphic art to support teaching and research at the university. By the end of his leadership of 35 years, the collection contained about 2,700 single engravings, lithographs, and drawings as well as a number of albums and volumes. In the 1850s, Morgenstern’s own valuable collection of artworks was added to the treasures of the museum. In the second half of the 19th century, due to the reorganisation of the art museum, the graphic arts collection belonged to the university drawing school. After the closing of the school, the collection was transferred to the university library in the last decade of the 19th century.
The number of items in the collection has grown considerably during the hundred years it has been in the university library. This has mostly been the result of processing the albums and volumes of engravings in the old books collection sheet by sheet and adding them to the art collection. Since part of the mission of the library is the preservation of materials printed in Estonia, more attention has been paid to enlarging the collection with Baltic-German graphic art. In the course of time, additions to the collection have come from other sources as well. At present, the graphic arts collection contains more than 10,000 single works.
Since the library today does not actively collect modern graphic art, the core of the collection remains an expertly assembled set of works by old masters of Western Europe. Represented are all major art countries and artists of the 16th-18th centuries as well as all techniques of black-and-white printmaking applied in that period.