Those who are not conversant in works of art are often surprised at the high value set by connoisseurs on drawings which appear careless, and in every respect unfinished; but they are truly valuable... they give the idea of a whole.
- Sir Joshua Reynolds
We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.
- Anais Nin


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Google Art Project

Posted by Charley Parker at 11:40 pm

Google Art Project, Rembrandt, The Night Watch

There are times I just want to hug the internet, and say “I love you Internet!“.

Google, that monolithic giant of search, advertising, maps, stats and online software, whose offerings and initiatives have ranged from the amazing (search, maps) to the not-so wonderful (privacy issues), has spun off a new initiative for which I will forgive most of their transgressions.

Google on Monday unveiled a new feature called Google Art Project that is nothing short of wonderful and amazing, and, if Google’s history is any indication, stands to become even more wonderful and amazing as time goes on.

The project is an online archive of ultra-high-resolution images of great works of art.

Google has applied their “Street View” technology, familiar for providing zoomable street-level images within the context of Google Maps, to the display of both the works and the galleries in which they reside.

Google Street View has been put to unofficial art related use before, notably with the Virtual Paintout (my post here) in which artists virtually “visit” a specified location by way of Google Street View, and use the images as reference for “on location” paintings.

Here, the technology is being put to much different use by Google, allowing some of the best views of great paintings available online.

At the moment they are working with 17 museums, each of which has contributed one or more gigapixel level images to the project; and an impressive start it is:

Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin – Germany
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian, Washington DC – USA
The Frick Collection, NYC – USA
Gemäldegalerie, Berlin – Germany
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC – USA
MoMA, The Museum of Modern Art, NYC – USA
Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid – Spain
Museo Thyssen – Bornemisza, Madrid – Spain
Museum Kampa, Prague – Czech Republic
National Gallery, London – UK
Palace of Versailles – France
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam – The Netherlands
The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg – Russia
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow – Russia
Tate Britain, London – UK
Uffizi Gallery, Florence – Italy
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam – The Netherlands

Starting from a list that appears on the project’s home page when you mouse over the initial image, you can choose a museum, then browse the museum’s corridors, or go right to an artwork.

Unlike the stingy feeling so many museums project with tiny preview images and zooming images that have to be scrolled in frustratingly small little windows, the artworks here are available in a full screen zooming interface, and when I say “zoom” I mean it really zooms, down to an astonishing level of detail.

This is like the Haltadefinizione project that I wrote about here, but with a better interface and without the annoyance of watermarking.

In the images above, I’ve chosen to visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and zoom in to a nose-up-against-the-canvas view of Rembrandt’s The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq, commonly known as The Night Watch.

Though the Flash drop-down for browsing museums and works is a bit glitchy, the interface’s provision for scrolling and zooming is wonderfully fluid, and the ability to get your eyeballs right up to Rembrandt’s textural brushwork is just delicious.

I’ve left the zooming control in my images just to demonstrate it, but it and other interface elements politely melt away when not in use. In the upper right is a Visitor Guide button, which provides a general introduction to the project (there is also a short introductory video here), and an info (“i”) button which gives access to an information panel with a menu of options for information about the painting, provided by the museum in which it hangs.

Of note in that menu are links to “More Works by this Artist” and “More Works in this Museum”, which can lead to a nice browsing experience.

There are some amazing images to be seen, including The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Van Gogh’s The Starry Night at the MoMA, Hans Holbein’s enigmatic The Ambassadors (my post here) in the National Gallery, London and (be still my beating heart) Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi!


I’ll give my Major Time Sink Warning and bid you enjoy!

All art on the internet should be like this.

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18 comments for Google Art Project »

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  1. Comment by Brian Harrison
    Thursday, February 3, 2011 @ 3:09 am

    Oh yes, a MAJOR TIME SINK INDEED !!!!!!!
    Absolutely astonishing, and a wonderful use of the Internet.
    A BIG THANK YOU to Google, I could spend days, weeks looking through this :))
    Thank you Charley for making us aware, very much appreciated.

  2. Comment by steve strode
    Thursday, February 3, 2011 @ 3:46 am

    Excellent post Charley, the site is nothing short of amazing. Every brushstroke is there to be had. Only triouble is I think I’d spend far too much time on this site :-)

  3. Comment by Katherine
    Thursday, February 3, 2011 @ 4:41 am

    Ha! Another all visuals and no words site ;)

    However last night I found its weakness – when I tried to access it via my iPad – and it won’t work because it’s Flash.

    Now do you suppose they built this BEFORE the iPad got off the ground and eschewed Flash in favour of fast loads which don’t hog bandwidth?

  4. Comment by Charley Parker
    Thursday, February 3, 2011 @ 9:21 am

    As much as I admire the iPad’s design and technology, and understand the decision not to enable Flash on iOS devices, I have to say that statistically it’s not a significant percentage of web users yet (may be in the future, but not yet). Also “HTML 5″ Just isn’t there yet in delivering this kind of experience.

  5. Comment by Dan van Benthuysen
    Thursday, February 3, 2011 @ 9:21 am

    Access to the site has been balky in the first days. It appears that Google was not prepared for the crush of visitors but as one would expect from a company with Google’s resources, the site has become more accessible by the hour and early access problems are disappearing.

    I was a tad disappointed that the Street View technology is not seamlessly integrated with the megapixel painting enlargements but one assumes that’s coming down the road. In the meantime we’re nonetheless all absorbed in a level of detail that most museum’s velvet ropes prohibit.

  6. Comment by Charley Parker
    Thursday, February 3, 2011 @ 9:32 am

    I have to say that I’ve been so dazzled by the paintings that I haven’t spent much time exploring the gallery views, something that would normally fascinate me. I’ll explore that more in the future.

  7. Comment by Grace
    Thursday, February 3, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    Really wonderful paintings, i am starting to make my own painting too,i hope i can be this good one day

  8. Comment by Jen Green
    Thursday, February 3, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    Thank you. I saw notice of this on the Google home page, but hadn’t taken the time to look into what exactly it was. Thank you so much for your excellent review of it. I will definitely be making the time to check it out now!

  9. Comment by David Teter
    Thursday, February 3, 2011 @ 4:18 pm

    Wow is right. And major time sink!
    And good to the museums who are participating so far.
    I was at the Freer Gallery of Art years ago, now I can revisit in CLOSE-UP.

    Oh… and when are we gonna have to change the name from planet Earth to planet Google? The ‘blue’ planet to the ‘goo’ planet. Anyone know? Just wondering…

  10. Comment by Jesús
    Saturday, February 5, 2011 @ 10:05 am

    As always google making the game to the politicians, and as always in favor of the most powerful. and as always being erected in POLITICAL SENSOR. Did the same thing make in China, “If it will affect me the pocket because you, well, fu.. the Chinese!!” I wanted to know reason they always have to tie the culture and the art in general with the politics? Why cubans can not access to the art project from Cuba? and when you click on the link it says that you are in a country that has FORBIDDEN to access to that page!! MF´s, The same thing always, Shame for them.

    It is amusing to read the press note:

    “With this original project, any user in any part of the world will be able to know the history and the artists that are behind a great number of works of art with only to make a clic with the mouse.”

    They are really already believed themself “The Big Brother” (from the book) MANIPULATORS!!


    thank you

  11. Comment by Debbie
    Saturday, February 5, 2011 @ 7:00 pm

    I love this new venture by Google – cool as! I’ve been looking at it for a few days – it’s like going on a voyage of discovery. I’m pretty sure that, like Street View, this will improve as time goes one and I expect lots more galleries will be added, making this a really important and fun resource online. The only issue I have so far is about Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors – I’ve described it fully in my blog:

    I’ve been trying and trying to get at the right angle to view the skull! If anybody’s sussed this out and can let me know how to do this, I’d be really chuffed.

  12. Comment by Ben
    Sunday, February 6, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

    Well, that just cost me an entire day’s worth of productivity. Thanks, Charlie! ;)

  13. Comment by Charley Parker
    Sunday, February 6, 2011 @ 5:41 pm

    My pleasure (grin).

  14. Comment by Simon Fletcher
    Monday, February 7, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

    Wow. This is the best google-news I have ever come across, and its a step toward making the world quite a lot smaller for artists and art students. Though I still want to visit the galleries in person

  15. Comment by The NewsGallery
    Monday, February 7, 2011 @ 8:43 pm


  16. Comment by Joshua James Art
    Saturday, February 12, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

    It’s a great resource, but isn’t it a little strange that the _Google_ art project doesn’t support searching of this material?

  17. Comment by Pagan Sphinx
    Tuesday, February 15, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

    I’m floored. When the term “internet” was still only a buzz in my ear, I hoped that it would be an art lover’s paradise. This exceeds

  18. Comment by Canvas Artwork.
    Wednesday, April 20, 2011 @ 3:31 am

    hat’s up google!

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