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Google Seeks Mona Lisa as Online Art Embraces Van Gogh

A Google Camera
A Google camera in front of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Google is putting the works of museums online. Photographer: Elie Posner/Israel Museum via Bloomberg

Google Inc. has expanded its virtual tours to more than 150 of the world’s major museums, featuring high-resolution close-ups of masterworks by Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Botticelli -- but not the Mona Lisa.

The latest additions that went online this month include the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and Jerusalem’s Israel Museum. The Louvre in the French capital, home of the Da Vinci masterpiece, isn’t taking part in the website, dubbed Art Project.

Internet browsers can tour the galleries from 40 countries as they would neighborhoods on Google Street View. Google is seeking more new partners in the U.S., Europe and emerging markets. It says the service won’t generate revenue, including through advertising, though it gives no figures.

“Everyone asks me if we have Leonardo’s Mona Lisa,” Amit Sood, who heads the project, said at a news briefing in Paris. “We’re talking to people from the Louvre. Maybe they’ll be part of the next phase,” he said of the world’s most visited museum, which hosted 8.8 million people last year, according to its website.

When contacted by telephone by Bloomberg News, a spokeswoman at the Louvre press office declined to comment and wouldn’t give her name.

The Israel Museum has already put the Dead Sea Scrolls online and they were seen by 1 million visitors from more than 200 countries in about three days. The next step in collaboration was “almost a marriage of the moment,” James Snyder, director of Israel Museum, said in an interview.

Orsay’s Monet

Among the museum’s items now online is the interior of an 18th-century Italian Vittoria Veneto Synagogue and some of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies. The French announcement was made in Orsay, with its Monet-filled walls.

“Google is committed to bringing art and culture online and making them universally accessible,” said Yossi Matias, managing director of Google’s R&D center in Israel.

The site started in February 2011 with works from the Tate Britain, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and 15 others from nine countries. More than 40 of the museums have now allowed Google to digitalize one artwork at a resolution of 7 billion pixels, or 1,000 times the average digital camera.

The Mountain View, California-based Internet company has sent robot-like devices equipped with cameras to roll around museums from Sao Paulo to Istanbul over the past year, snapping pictures of as many as 30,000 works.

Vincent’s Bedrooms

“Out of pure coincidence we’ve reunited the three versions of Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘The Bedroom’ in one place,” said Sood, who came up with the idea for Art Project two-and-a-half years ago and now heads a team of seven people in London, including former employees of the Met and the Tate.

By striking deals only with the museums, and not with artists, their heirs nor foundations, Google avoids having to deal with copyright issues, Sood said. The company has included image security technology in the database to protect the photos, he also said.

Major artworks by artists such as Picasso and other large galleries are not included yet. Still, the collection ranges from Egon Schiele’s 1914 work “Naked Girls Embracing” in the Leopold Museum, Vienna, to Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert,” dating from about 1480, in the Frick Collection.

The 7-gigapixel images throw up curious details. In Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Harvesters” (1565), from the Met, tiny background figures can be seen throwing sticks at a tied-up goose in a game called squail.

In “The Ambassadors” (1533) -- now in the U.K.’s National Gallery -- Hans Holbein not only represents France’s ambassador to England, but makes sure that the tiny town where his chateau is located is clearly marked on the globe in the picture.

The other museums taking part include the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Palace of Versailles, and the Gemaeldegalerie in Berlin.

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