Sometimes the naked eye just doesn't cut it.
Take Vincent van Gogh's 1888 painting "La maison de La Crau," or "The Old Mill," a popular attraction at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Its diminutive size, about 25 inches by 21 inches, means that a visitor would have to peer closely at the canvas to get an intimate sense of how van Gogh handled paint.
Get your nose a little too close to van Gogh's globs of paint, and gallery security guards are likely to take notice.
How to solve this problem? Easy: Point your browser to the Albright-Knox section of Google Arts & Culture. The site is part of a wide-ranging Google initiative that has brought thousands of high-resolution images online for art lovers to explore at remarkably close range.
In early March, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery formally launched its partnership with Google, making available 67 of its paintings and sculptures -- many of them masterworks highly regarded by credentialed art historians and casual gallery visitors alike.
"It's just an amazing tool," said Kelly Carpenter, a digital assets manager at the gallery. "The reach that Google has? Everybody knows the term Google, it's become a verb. When they approached us, I was extremely excited about participating."
Among the famous pieces included on the site are Jackson Pollock's "Convergence," Giacomo Balla's "Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash," Willem de Kooning's "Gotham News," Picasso's "La Toilette" and Paul Gauguin's "Yellow Christ."
The images, though they are not at the maximum resolution Google can handle, provide a remarkable level of detail. In "The Old Mill," for example, figures roving along the landscape beneath van Gogh's cracked, teal sky are clearly visible, though you have to strain to see them in person.
Similarly, you can get down to the brushstroke level in Balla's "Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash," to see how the artist used varying opacities of paint to communicate the idea of motion. And Google's zoom tool, when trained on the galactic expanse of Pollock's "Convergence," becomes a Hubble Space Telescope capable of exploring all the little systems and splashes embedded in the work.
The gallery is currently tracking who is viewing the art, with clicks coming from all over the world. That global audience is benefiting from expanded information about the works, for each of which the gallery is able to submit up to 20 different translations.
"I thought that was a really unique way to reach audiences globally," Carpenter said. "Also, we're bringing art to them as opposed to people coming to us."
The project began, Carpenter said, with a request from Google to photograph its Frida Kahlo self-portrait for a yet-to-be-launched digital exhibition of her self-portraits from many institutions. The gallery then contributed 16 portraits to the viral Google Arts & Culture app function that allows users to find their doppelgänger in museum collections.
Because of copyright restrictions, some of the gallery's most beloved pieces aren't featured on the site. But even so, Carpenter said, the project offers features – like the ability to explore other artists' work in other museums with a single click – that make it attractive to Google users and a gallery in search of a larger global audience.
"You can also click on locations and you can bring up the artworks that are specific to that place, so if someone did landscapes, you can actually then go to the place where this artist did a landscape," Carpenter said. "These are levels that we as an institution, and most institutions, just can't do."
Story topics: Albright-Knox Art Gallery