Included among the institutions that have teamed up with Google are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Frick Collection in New York, and the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art in Washington. Museums in London, Madrid, Moscow, Amsterdam and Florence, among others, are also contributing.
The Freer has allowed a popular work by James McNeill Whistler, "The Princess From the Land of Porcelain," to be digitized through the "gigapixel" process, which stitches together multiple high-resolution images. Now available online, the Google Art reproduction makes it possible to see the faintest trace of white paint Whistler used to make his subject's eyes glisten, as well as the nubby, gridlike texture of the canvas underneath.
"On average there are 7 billion pixels" per image, said Amit Sood, leader of the Google Art Project. "This is a thousand times more than the average digital camera."
"The giga-pixel experience brings us very close to the essence of the artist through detail that simply can't be seen in the gallery itself," said Julian Raby, director of the Freer, in a statement. "Far from eliminating the necessity of seeing artworks in person, Art Project deepens our desire to go in search of the real thing."
Other art museum directors who have seen the technology are impressed by it, though not convinced it will substitute for a scholarly eye in direct contact with an actual painting. Brian Kennedy, director of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, said the gigapixel images can bring out details that might not be visible to ordinary museum-goers in a gallery. But scholars will still want a three-dimensional view of the art, which even a very high-resolution two-dimensional image can't provide.
Many important art museums have already produced extensive databases of their collections, and provide access to some of their collections online. The Google Art Project differs in its combination of a "walk-through" function, letting visitors see how paintings are hung and organized as they move virtually through the collection, with the ability in some cases to see high-resolution images of specific works. It also brings prominent galleries from around the world together through a single interface, with Google's extraordinary online reach.