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Has anyone seen our intern?

“Has anyone seen our intern?” This blog series will follow the IMA’s Public Affairs Intern, Jennifer Anderson, as she escapes the office space for a little R&R in the galleries…


"Portrait of James Whitcomb Riley" by John Singer Sargent

Within the first week of my internship, I made two exciting discoveries here at the IMA. One was The Prado in Google Earth and the other, which I found upstairs in the American Galleries was the John Singer Sargent painting, Portrait of James Whitcomb Riley.

For those who aren’t already familiar, The Prado Museum and Google Earth have teamed up to create an interactive site for the museum, which can be accessed on the internet through Google Earth. The application creates a 3D view of the museum and incredibly detailed imagery of 14 masterpieces found in the museum, including works by Velasquez, Rubens, and Rembrandt, and Goya. According to the Associated Press article, the project involved 8,200 photographs of the works and an assumedly hefty bill (footed by Google).

The end product allows a viewer to zoom in on an image made up of 14 billion pixels. According to Google, that’s 1,400 times more detailed than the image a 10 megapixel camera could take – it’s quite remarkable. I watched the trailer for the project and was amazed. As one observer noted, you can actually see what appears to be a blemish painted on the rump of a women in the Rubens’ painting, The Three Graces. From what I can remember of Rubens in my art history classes, such an addition would be typical of his humor. I downloaded Google Earth at home in hopes of exploring the paintings beyond what the trailer shows, but unfortunately, my computer couldn’t handle the navigation very well, and I was left slightly frustrated. Hopefully your computer is faster.

So, how does this relate to discovery number 2? – Portrait of James Whitcomb Riley

I have recently read several posts, both on the IMA Blog and on other blogs, that discuss the use of technology in museums. The Prado in Google Earth raises the question: Can digital imagery ever replace the real deal? Would it matter if every museum offered all of their works in a manner similar to the 14 offered by Google Earth from The Prado? Would patrons stop entering the galleries and opt for the computer based imagery?

John Singer Sargent leads me to my answer.
Can technology replace the real deal? No.
Why? Brushstrokes.

I was a painting major in my undergraduate studies at DePauw University, and John Singer Sargent is my favorite painter. I studied his technique, I wrote papers on him, and I tried painting like him. My infatuation with this artist is founded upon his brushstrokes.

My painting professor adamantly told me that a painter should always paint from life, as Sargent most always did. He would say, “Painting from a picture will flatten your image and your painting will not have the same effect as it would if you were to paint from life.” For me, Google Earth has the same effect on a painting. I want to see the brushstrokes in person, in 3D space – not on a computer screen. (Google calls it 3D, but it’s not the same…)

My point here is that no matter how cool The Prado in Google Earth is, no matter how close the computers can zoom in on the brushstrokes, (at this point you might have to check it out to really know what I mean), I am always going to want to see the real thing. Yes, Google offers me the chance to zoom in on brushstrokes in a way that my own eyes would not allow me to do but that, for me, will never replace the intimacy of viewing the actual canvass on which the paint was applied. As Prado Director Miguel Zagaza says, “What we don’t see is the soul. The soul will always only be seen by contemplating the original.”

"Lady Agnew of Lochnaw" by John Singer Sargent

"Lady Agnew of Lochnaw" by John Singer Sargent

This is why I will one day travel to the National Galleries of Scotland, where my favorite Sargent painting, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, hangs.

Filed under: Art, New Media, Technology

5 Responses to “Has anyone seen our intern?”

  • avatar
    Meg Says:

    Jenny – Fantastic entry! You hit the nail on the head regarding the powerful, yet limited abilities of technology. However, what Google has provided is the opportunity for someone without the means to travel to explore a collection thousands of miles a way. I hope that this sort of innovation, rather than lead people away, will inspire curiosity and actually drive them to local galleries and museums.

  • avatar
    Jenny Says:

    Meg – Thanks for the comment. I couldn’t agree with you more.
    I think outreach possibilities are the strongest reason to support technology and new media initiatives in museums. Your hope that this sort of innovation will inspire curiosity is in my opinion right on track, I’m not sure how it couldn’t spark one’s interest.

  • avatar
    liska Says:

    awesome article jenny!

  • avatar
    Lisa Says:

    Impressive piece. I think not only will it give people with out the means to travel to see collections as Meg said, but also teachers who want to show their students examples of different works of art as well! This is great, I can’t wait to try it out!

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