Unlike some museum directors who still seem to feel being miserly with images of their public domain artworks is somehow in their interest (perhaps under the assumption that allowing even a few high-res images onto the web will steal the museum’s soul and capture it inside the magic picture making box), savvy museum directors are increasingly demonstrating that providing beautiful hi-res image images on the web of the public domain artwork in their collections is not only good public policy, it’s good museum policy, increasing interest and attention to the museum and its collections.
Of course, providing high resolution images of lots of artwork in a systematic way on a museum’s website takes more than a policy change, and in large museums in particular, takes lots of work and considerable expense.
Such an effort has recently been conducted by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Access is, in government fashion, a bit round about and not as convenient as, for example, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s wonderful new website, but the NGA Images website and its database of extraordinary artworks are a welcome addition nonetheless, and the museum and its staff are to be thanked and congratulated for a terrific resource.
The “round about” part is the condition that, though you can search the database and see reasonably large preview images without it, you have to register and log in to access the higher resolution images (this is free and simple to do).
The images may be reused by the public under their “Open Access” policy (as well they should be, since everything in the National Gallery belongs to the American public by law — see my recent rant about “public domain“).
To search the collections you can use the simple search box on all pages or the advanced search page, or you can browse through one of the themedcollections that the staff has begun to provide to introduce some areas of the collection, like French Galleries, Self-Portraits, Music and Frequently Requested.
In all cases be aware that your search or collection returns are initially limited to the number of images par page chosen in the controls at the top of the page. You can also choose thumbnail size, background color and zooming and caption options.
Once in a search or collection, you can use controls under the thumbnails to view more information, add to a lightbox, download the medium-resolution version and, if logged in, download the high resolution version.
Unfortunately, I found the process less than intuitive and unnecessarily complex (my tax dollars at work). When signed in you should see your name at the top right of the page and not “Sign In”. Under the image thumbnails, look for the download icon with two lines, mouse over to see a tool tip that this is the link for the hi-res image. This should open a pop up with the image download options (the “Project Title” and “Usage” fields are optional. Choose a size and click to download.
The National Gallery is a world-class museum with superb treasures in its collection. In spite of issues with the process of getting to the high resolution images, the museum has added a new treasure in providing us access to them by way of this site.
(Images above, with detail crops: Rembrandt van Rijn, William Merritt Chase, Johannes Vermeer, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Leonardo da Vinci, Claude Monet)