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A combination of query-by-visual-example (QBVE) and semantic retrieval (SR), denoted as query-by-semantic-example (QBSE), is proposed. Images are labeled with respect to a vocabulary of visual concepts, as is usual in SR. Each image is then represented by a vector, referred to as a semantic multinomial, of posterior concept probabilities. Retrieval is based on the query-by-example paradigm: the user provides a query image, for which 1) a semantic multinomial is computed and 2) matched to those in the database. QBSE is shown to have two main properties of interest, one mostly practical and the other philosophical. From a practical standpoint, because it inherits the generalization ability of SR inside the space of known visual concepts (referred to as the semantic space) but performs much better outside of it, QBSE produces retrieval systems that are more accurate than what was previously possible. Philosophically, because it allows a direct comparison of visual and semantic representations under a common query paradigm, QBSE enables the design of experiments that explicitly test the value of semantic representations for image retrieval. An implementation of QBSE under the minimum probability of error (MPE) retrieval framework, previously applied with success to both QBVE and SR, is proposed, and used to demonstrate the two properties. In particular, an extensive objective comparison of QBSE with QBVE is presented, showing that the former significantly outperforms the latter both inside and outside the semantic space. By carefully controlling the structure of the semantic space, it is also shown that this improvement can only be attributed to the semantic nature of the representation on which QBSE is based.