What does the Met’s New Online Collection Mean for Art Students?

This morning I was looking at a few of the 400,000 images the Metropolitan Museum of Art published online a couple days ago — zooming in close to the paintings to see how they were made. For someone who went to art school being able to do this is a revelation. I used to go to the museum with my sketchpad and copy the old masters. I’d get as close as I could to understand the brush strokes, colors, lines. The guards knew who to watch out for and would bark suddenly when we stuck our faces over the imaginary line.

As class assignments we were required to copy hundreds — literally hundreds — of the masters drawings and paintings. for those we mostly worked from images in books — a picture the size of a wallet photo.

Which is one of the many reasons this new met resource is fucking phenomenal.

You can get so, so close — far closer than one could in real life.

Here are three images of the same painting, Study Head of A Young Woman by Anthony Van Dyck: the image as it would be in a book, as close as you could get in a museum, and then as close as you can get online.

Portrait as you’d see it in a textbook.
Portrait as you’d see it in a museum gallery.
Portrait as you can see it on The Met’s online collection.

What, whoa.

I was just looking to see how the ear was formed using highlights and shadows — and turns out there’s text under the painting. It’s not legible, but I’d never have seen it if I hadn’t been able to zoom in like I did. I looked it up. This is from the Met’s website:

The picture’s style suggests a date of about 1618–20, when van Dyck collaborated with Rubens. The paper support appears to be from an account book written in Italian with traces of Flemish (possibly proper names). Perhaps the paper was used previously by Rubens, who often wrote in Italian, but it is far from certain that the barely discernible writing is in his hand.

The above text is possibly written on the wall of the gallery where the painting is hung, or as a sidebar in a textbook — but i rarely read the labels anymore — so discovering the text accidentally was a total treat for me. And it’s the kind of discovery that i think students need to have often if they are going to keep interested.

I envy art students today, with access to every painting they could ever want at their finger tips. Being able to take a magnifying glass over 400,000 works of art in the Met’s Collection, deconstruct it’s surface anatomy. However — and it’s a big however — I hope they remember that the painting they are examining is no longer a painting. It is a photograph of a painting. Moreover, it’s a photograph being re-presented on a glowing screen. The result? The work becomes inherently flat, and not paint. You can see the lushness of the brush strokes, but via shadow and light represented in a photograph. You can see the color, but as light, not paint — and through at least two modifications (the color change of the digital camera, then the color change your screen.) What you can’t do is move around the surface of the paitning and see the sculpture of the paint. You can’t get the Thingness of the painting that is so inherent in the making of any object, of any painting.

I have no doubt I’m going to be using the Met’s online collection frequently for research, reference or just plain enjoyment. The creation of the online gallery is tremendously generous move and an example to other museums and private collections. For those of us who are current or eternal students of how drawings and paintings are made, I’m sure the collection will serve as an endless resource of detail and discovery. And instead of being a replacement for an actual visit to the see the work in person, I hope it will be an inspiration and reminder for us to go all the more.