See all the Vermeers in the world - on your phone

In an undated handout photo provided by Dresden State Art Museums, a photographer takes a high-resolution photo of The Procuress (above), a painting by Vermeer. All authenticated Vermeer paintings, including Girl With A Pearl Earring (far left), can
In an undated handout photo provided by Dresden State Art Museums, a photographer takes a high-resolution photo of The Procuress (above), a painting by Vermeer. PHOTO: GOOGLE ARTS & CULTURE, NYTIMES

AMSTERDAM • Johannes Vermeer, whose acute eye captured the quiet beauty of Dutch domestic life, was not a prolific artist - just 36 paintings are widely acknowledged as his works.

Still, anyone who wanted to see them all had to travel far and wide - to New York, London, Paris and beyond. Until now.

The Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, which owns what is perhaps his best-known masterpiece, Girl With A Pearl Earring, has teamed up with Google Arts & Culture in Paris to build an augmented-reality app that creates a virtual museum featuring all of the Dutch artist's works.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has contributed images of all five of its Vermeer masterpieces, while the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, each with four, have also given photographs of theirs.

Two more have come from the Louvre and three from the Frick Collection in New York. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston has shared an image of The Concert, the Vermeer that disappeared after being stolen from the museum's collection in 1990.

It is on view once again in Meet Vermeer, the digital museum. Starting Monday, the free app has been accessible to anyone with a camera-equipped smartphone.

"This is one of these moments when technology does something that you can never do in real life, and that's because these paintings could never be brought together in real life," said Dr Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis.

She explained that some of the 17th-century paintings are too fragile to travel, while some are in private collections and the Gardner's was lost. But even under different circumstances, it would be unlikely that all the owners would be willing to part with all of their prized Vermeers at the same time.

In an undated handout photo provided by Dresden State Art Museums, a photographer takes a high-resolution photo of The Procuress (above), a painting by Vermeer. All authenticated Vermeer paintings, including Girl With A Pearl Earring (far left), can
All authenticated Vermeer paintings, including Girl With A Pearl Earring (above), can be viewed in a virtual museum on a free app. PHOTO: GOOGLE ARTS & CULTURE, NYTIMES

The 18 museums and private collections that own Vermeer paintings, however, were willing to provide high-resolution digital image files of their Vermeers to the project.

Vermeer, a somewhat mysterious figure who lived and worked in Delft, the Netherlands, is thought to have created about 45 paintings during a career spanning nearly two decades. Some are believed to have gone missing. He died at 43 in 1675.

Besides the 36 works that a majority of Vermeer scholars accept as authentic, others have been attributed to him. Because the art world continues to debate their authorship, Dr Gordenker said this virtual museum would not include them.

Although many of these images are already on the museums' websites, she said she wanted to give the public a sense of the paintings' size in relation to one another - something that is hard to convey in a flat picture on a screen.

In an undated handout photo provided by Dresden State Art Museums, a photographer takes a high-resolution photo of The Procuress (above), a painting by Vermeer. All authenticated Vermeer paintings, including Girl With A Pearl Earring (far left), can
All authenticated Vermeer paintings, including Girl With A Pearl Earring, can be viewed in a virtual museum on a free app (above). PHOTO: GOOGLE ARTS & CULTURE, NYTIMES

Mr Laurent Gaveau, director of Google's Arts & Culture Lab, a nonprofit developed to experiment with new ways to make art and culture accessible to the public, said this is the first virtual museum Google has created, but he could certainly imagine making more.

"We could think about all kinds of museums that never existed," he said in a telephone interview, although he added that no other such projects were in the works.

"We want to first see how people will react to this, and we want to see, from a technological standpoint and a user's standpoint, if it's right and how it can be improved."

But as the technology improves and visitors have the artificial but intimate experience of seeing high-quality reproductions in a museum setting, does Dr Gordenker worry that they will be less motivated to travel for the real thing?

No, she said.

"The more information we share, including images, the more I think that people want to have the authentic experience of seeing the work in its home and seeing it as an actual physical presence," she said.

"One of the reasons museums have becoming increasingly relevant, and why attendance is going up, is that we've been able to harness these digital technologies. It breaks down barriers and makes what we have much more accessible."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2018, with the headline 'See all the Vermeers in the world - on your phone'. Print Edition | Subscribe