Home I Don’t Know Much About Art But I Know What’s Online

I Don’t Know Much About Art But I Know What’s Online

No one can have a “museum experience” without stepping foot in a museum. Let’s just get that out of the way. It doesn’t matter how digitally precise your online version of “The Forge of Vulcan” is, tilting your head to draw the light across the raised ridges of paint is not an electronically duplicable experience. That doesn’t mean digital art collections don’t have great value. After all, art books do. So here are half a dozen great digital art collections you can visit to inspire your own trip, or your own thinking about art, or to remind yourself or to learn a bit for no other reason than digital art is better by far than no art at all. In order to keep from wandering off the path never to be seen again, let’s focus on Western painting.

The Prado on Google Earth

The Prado is an unending-feeling gallery of some of the greatest paintings in the Western tradition. Getting there via Google Earth may feel similar. Download the program, install it, open it, select the 3D building layer, enter “Prado Museum” and enlarge, enlarge, enlarge. Might be easier to panhandle the airfare.

State Hermitage Museum: Digital Collection

Russia’s Hermitage has partnered with IBM to provide a vast digital collection. Replete with a visual search function and a zoom, the presentation contains major and minor painters from every era of Western painting. The ability to sketch a search, or search by palette, is pretty awesome, but the Java function is clunky, the navigation is like getting lost in, well, the Hermitage perhaps, and the resolution is not unearthly, but it’s worth it for the content.

The National Gallery, London

Probably one of the best in terms of resolution and detail, as well as ease of use when it comes to eyeballing the masterworks. You could just stare at the detail in the background of Aachen’s “The Amazement of the Gods” until you went slowly mad. Seeing it in person must require some sort of medication arrangement with the museum.

The Guggenheim

The Goog (as we call it, we who are in the know) does something interesting as an intro. It pairs a Daily Highlight with a Recent Acquisition. On this day the former is Baselitz’s “The Gleaner” and the latter Gonzalez’s “Waiting Crowd.” Unfortunately, the expanded versions are not that big, though the detail’s not bad. You can, though, search through the online offerings from the Goog’s outliers – Bilbao, Venice and Berlin, in addition to their home museum in NY.

The Jewish Museum

This museum in Paris houses a good representation of the work of the Ecole de Paris. Sanely organized, it is searchable by artist, object and geography. Telling the tale of an entire people and its history through art is a fascinating one and focuses a visitor’s mind, whether they’re more focused on the history or the art.


New York’s Museum of Modern Art is a behemoth in its area. So the content is generous. Possibly the most important thing is the level of resolution on the scanned images. The images, unfortunately, are not provided with context so much as it with collection data. You can click off to a page devoted to an author, but it seems most useful when a combination of artist and painting background is provided with the painting, So it may not be as illuminating to a non-professional as it could be.

No Stand Outs

The collections of museums are making their way online, if for no other reason than they serve as a kind of advertisement. I have yet, however, to come across an outfit, small or large, whose goal was to make their entire collection, or even a substantial majority of it, available online. The few that tried did not hit the trifecta of navigational ease, resolution and information that would make it the most useful. Do you know of one I missed? Please point us to it in the comments.

Again, this survey was tightly focused on purpose. If you know of a great art collection available digitally that features non-Western art or is in general organized differently, by all means suggest that as well.

And, if you’re an iPad user, you might want to take a look at Art Authority, or read this review by ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick. Art Authority provides access to “40,000 paintings and sculptures, organized into eight period-specific rooms.”

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