Viewing Vermeer on the WWW

Digital images of artworks, which have all but replaced traditional color slides, are essential for scholarly study and teaching, but they are likewise economically valuable. Many museums offer only thumbnail images, watermark their images, prohibit downloading, or simply keep their collections offline. A few pioneering institutions have adopted an open access policy offering free of charge and free of copyright high-quality digital images of their works of art.

In one format or another, high-resolution digital images of 29 paintings by Vermeer are currently accessible to the WWW navigator, free of charge. Some of these can be downloaded onto the user's hard disk. The remaining can only be viewed online via one of various viewing interfaces which allows zooming and panning. The zoom interfaces have the drawback that only limited areas of the picture's total surface can be viewed at any given moment at maximum resolution.

Monitor Calibration

In order to insure that the colors of your computer screen match those of the high standard digital image, regular monitor calibration is recommended.

For Mac OSX operating system use Display Calibrator Assistant.

For PC with Microsoft Windows use Adobe Gamma that comes as part of the Photoshop package.

Pixie (Nattyware) is a utility made especially for webmasters and designers which returns the hex, RGB, HTML, CMYK and HSV values of a given color on the computer screen indicated by the position of the cursor.

Advantages and disadvantages in viewing today's high-resolution images of artworks

Girl with a Red Hat (detail), Johannes Vermeer
Girl with a Red Hat (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1665–1667
Oil on panel, 23.2 x 18.1 cm.
National Gallery of Art , Washington, D.C.

There is much to be said for the today's state-of-the-art digital images of artworks. The level of detail and accuracy of color of the best digital images are such that they offer various advantages to viewing real works in museums, especially during temporary exhibitions when the viewing conditions of the artworks can be seriously compromised by broader exhibition interests.

Crowds, glare, dim light and the impossibility of examining paintings at close range (to say nothing the inaccessibility of the important art collections to a great part of the world's population) are all factors that seriously inhibit the study and appreciation of many works of art. For example, to expect Vermeer's Guitar Player to reveal its nuanced beauty in the faint light of the barely illuminated Kenwood House where the picture is permanently housed is to ask too much any painting, whatever its artistic merit.

However, viewing digital images of artworks present important lacunae in respects to the original art works they represent. Digital images are formed by side-by-side pixels which emit different frequencies of light. Paintings are instead, three-dimensional physical objects made of successive layers of variegated substances that combine in unique and unusual manners. Obviously, even in the best of case, a painting's dimensions and texture, both absolutely crucial components of any serious viewing experience, are lost in even the best digital image.

Vermeer's Procuress in Dresden

However, notwithstanding the continual debate as to the advantages and disadvantages of digital images of artworks, digital images should not be considered adversaries to original artworks, but close allies when used properly. Good digital images of art works can pique the neophyte's curiously, confirm and renew the museum goer's on-the-spot impressions. They may also greatly facilitate scholarly research by allowing extended viewing and the possibility of comparing multiple works of art at extremely low cost.

In any case, although there remain various technical limits concerning resolution and viewing of high-resolution digital images, we have reached to the point where any significant increase in magnification of small, "cabinet" pictures like those of Vermeer is likely to be of use only for conservators.

Art institutions and the standardization of digital images

Until recent years, most museum websites featured digital images of their artworks which, regarding color and resolution, were little more than rough approximations.1 Many museums appear not even to be aware of the basic issues of digital accuracy. Adjustments in color and contrast are not infrequently made by the photographer who tweaks the image in Photoshop sitting in front of the picture until he arrives at what, in his personal judgment, is an acceptable result. This practice, known as "visual editing," is widespread. In fact, in a case study of four institutions, two paintings were imaged and processed through each museum's normal digital workflow and due to the many dissimilarities among the digital camera systems and workflows, there was a significant range in the quality of the digital masters.3

A survey of American art institutions (2005) reveled that while 94% were found to be increasing the use of digital photography, most of the tasks are performed manually. Only 20% reported any form of automated processing. Visual editing was used by 79%. Local changes with masks and filling in missing parts were made by 48% while 58% used sharpening. Respondents showed they were still lacking knowledge about the new systems and about critical aspects such as color..2

The concept of an international color standard, which assures accuracy independently from personal judgment, has slowly begun to make breach the museum community.4 Progress has been relatively slow due to technical obstacles and costs of rapidly evolving digital photography systems. In the case of large institutions which house a sizable part of the world's masterworks familiar to the greater public, the difficulties are compounded by the logistical hurdles of photographing and archiving thousands of images.

Digital images and museums with Vermeer paintings

The National Gallery

During the mid-1990s, in collaboration with other museums, universities and commercial enterprises, the National Gallery of London participated in a EC-supported MARC PROJECT (Methodology for Art Reproduction in Colour). The project developed a new, large-format digital camera capable of making images up to 20,000 x 20,000 pixels. Prototype MARC cameras were installed in the National Gallery and the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. After five years of development, the initial tungsten halogen photographic lamps used to illuminate the artworks, were replaced by new, brighter HMI lights. HMI light emits light that approximates optimal light temperature of c. 6500 K, recommended by the Commission Internationale de l'Eclairage.

National Gallery websiteNational Gallery website

To speed up image acquisition and bear heavy, continuous work, it was decided to employ the MARC II camera, already in use at the Library of Congress in Washington. The National Gallery developed its own user interface to control the camera's settings and the storage of images. Aside from the staff needed for the acquisition and storage of the digital images, a special laboratory was built on the lower floors of the gallery and the members of Art Handling Staff were increased to manage the continual transportation to and from the laboratory. Museum policy requires that paintings which are photographed must be returned to the gallery before the end of the day. The gallery's workflow now processes from 6 to 7 paintings a day, far more than the hundred or so per year when the project was initiated. By using the Gretag Macbeth 24-patch color rendition chart, inconsistencies in lighting can be corrected for each painting ensuring that the quality of the last image captured is as high as the first.

Today, each image from the files of the National Gallery Company Online Picture Library is consistent with any other, meaning that informed comparisons about color, tone and brightness can be made, ensuring as well, consistent production to print.

Many of these images are available at the National Gallery website. Moreover, the gallery's interactive, full-screen zoom feature counts as one of the most practical on the web. The resolution of these images are, however, scaled down from their original dimensions.

The only shortcoming of the National Gallery image policy is that is that their digital images cannot be downloaded onto the navigator's hard disk and utilized offline. However, there exist various "artisanal" techniques to acquire the full images for personal use, provided one is endowed with patience and is discreetly skilled in handling digital image manipulation programs like Photoshop or Gimp.

Both Vermeers owned by the gallery (and Kenwood House The Guitar Player) are available in high-resolution.

On occasion of the Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure exhibition, the gallery has provided new, and somewhat larger IIPImage interface high-resolution images of their own A Lady Standing at a Virginal, A Lady Seated at a Virginal as well as two other Vermeer paintings featured in the exhibition, The Guitar Player and The Music Lesson.

for further information on the National Gallery's digital images:

for technical information about the MARC II camera and the scanning initiative at the National Gallery:

Metropolitan Museum of Art

MET website
The Metropolitan Museum of Art website

While offering high-resolution scans of thousands of artworks, on its website the Metropolitan Museum of Art makes no claim its colors are accurate or consistent nor does it provide statements regarding the process by which their digital images are acquired and managed. Although it would appear that the colors and resolution of the museum's online images are sufficiently accurate, at maximum resolution, most appear somewhat blurred.

All the MET's images can all be downloaded onto the user's hard disk. The online viewing zoom interface is responsive. All five Vermeer paintings are available in high resolution.

National Gallery of Art logo

National Gallery of Art

National Gallery of Art website
National Gallery of Art Vermeer images

With the launch of NGA Images, the Gallery has initiated a revolutionary open access policy for digital images of works of art in their collection. Users may download any of the gallery's images, more than 20,000, free of charge (registration is required to fulfill certain image requests) and free of copyright restrictions. All four Vermeers in the gallery's collection are available in high resolution.

Although a "standards-based" reproduction guide of the museum's website provides advice for both novices and experts, the Gallery does not employ one, uniform type of digital image but four. Luckily, each image is identified by its category in the preview image metadata.

  1. Highest quality digital images are captured using a professional, large-format, high-resolution digital camera. Color is calibrated and corrected for uneven distribution of lighting, which results from lens falloff and non uniform light distribution on the surface of the artwork. However, each image is proofed against the original artwork under ISO proofing conditions and manually corrected when necessary (i.e., "visual balancing"). The maximum resolution available for these kinds of images is 3,000 pixels for the painting's longest side.
  2. Some images are captured using a professional, medium-resolution digital SLR camera. The image is corrected for uneven distribution of lighting due to lens falloff. The camera is calibrated for color to assist in accurate reproduction, but each artwork is not reviewed individually for accuracy. Images are reviewed in batches, and batch color corrections are applied when necessary.
  3. The gallery's traditional E-6 transparencies have been scanned using a professional flatbed scanner that is calibrated for color. Because transparencies have inherent limitations with respect to accurate color reproduction, the scan is manually color corrected while viewing the original artwork under standard proofing conditions (or as close to standard conditions as the situation allows) to make the reproduction more accurate.
  4. The transparencies have been scanned using a professional flatbed scanner that is calibrated for color. The image has been color corrected (when necessary) to match the color of the transparency. The transparency may, or may not, accurately represent the original artwork.


Note that the ZOOM feature returns a higher resolution image than those of the downloadable images

Woman Holding a Balance

A Lady Writing

Girl with a Flute

Girl wih a Red Hat

The highest-resolution digital images of Vermeer's paintings can be downloaded following the URL below: registration is required.


A Lady Writing

Woman Holding a Balance

Girl with a Red Hat

Girl with a Flute

The Frick Collection logo

Frick Collection

The high-resolution images accessible are the Frick Collection (3 Vermeers) via the ubiquitous Zoomify interface. The Frick's images were made by Google but, again, no guarantee of or information about color accuracy or consistency is provided. Unfortunately, the Zoomify interface does not allow the navigator to expand the viewing area to full screen dimensions like the London National Gallery or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This makes viewing at high magnification tedious. The Frick's Officer and Laughing Girl can be better viewed via Google Art Project.

Rijksmuseum logo


Rijksmuseum website page
Rijksmuseum website

In mid-2012, the Rijksmuseum renovated their website and now display digitalized images of 125,000 art works in their collection. All four of their Vermeer's are accessible in high resolution, higher than those of the National Gallery of London, the National Gallery of Art of Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unfortunately, the Rijksmuseum website has not divulged its their method of digital acquisition although the colors seem to be of the highest standard and images crisp. Although the browser interface is responsive, the viewing area is marred by obtrusive navigation icons that are a significant detriment to serious study. The high-resolution images may be downloaded.

National Gallery of Ireland logo

The National Gallery of Ireland

After the National Gallery of Ireland revamped its website, it also included a high-resolution image of its splendid Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid. The Zoomify interface does not allow the navigator to expand the viewing area to full screen dimensions making high magnification viewing somewhat tedious. The National Gallery image can be downloaded from Wikipedia.


Woman Writing a letter with her Maid



Google Art Project logo

Google Art Project

Google Art Project website
Google Art Project website

With great fanfare, Google announced (February 2011) the art interface Art Project which consists in "street view" tours of many of the world's major museums and thousands of high-resolution digital images of artworks.

As is Goolge's habit, this promising new project is riddled with inconsistencies and flaws. Some of the high-resolution images are extraordinarily detailed and true to life while others are so poor in color that they are of little use even to the casual navigator.

Google Art Project viewing is responsive but the digital images cannot be downloaded, although, most can be downloaded from other sources, as indicated beside the titles of the list of paintings below.

The level of color consistency, resolution and sharpness is highly uneven among their 14 paintings by Vermeer. The worst is The Geographer, which appears to have been drawn from an outdated color slide. The colors of The Procuress and The Music Lesson are very poor, but luckily the latter is reproduced with exceptional accuracy on the National Gallery website, although it is not downloadable.


Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (downloadable at the Wiki Media [see below)

The Procuress (downloadable at the Wiki Media [see below)

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (downloadable at the Wiki Media [see below)

The Little Street (downloadable at the Rijksmuseum or Wiki Media)

Officer and Laughing Girl (downloadable at the Wiki Media [see below)

The Milkmaid (downloadable at the Rijksmuseum or Wiki Media)

The Glass of Wine (downloadable at Wiki Media [see below])

The Music Lesson (downloadable at Wiki Media)

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (downloadable at the National Gallery of Art or Wiki Media)

Woman Holding a Balance (downloadable at the National Gallery of Art or at Wiki Media)

A Lady Writing (downloadable at the National Gallery of Art or Wiki Media)

Woman with a Pearl Necklace (downloadable at the Wikki Media [see below)

The Art of Painting (downloadable at the Wikki Media)

The Geographer (downloadable at the Wiki Media [see below)

The Love Letter (downloadable at the Rijksmuseum or Wiki Medai)


Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window

The Girl with a Wine Glass

The Glass of Wine

Woman with a Pearl Necklace

A Lady Writing

The Art of Painting

The Lacemaker (mediocre quality)

Mauritshuis icon


The Mauritshuis now offers excellent, high-resolution images of their three Vermeer paintings, all of which can be downloaded. Moreover, there are images of each work's backside, signature and the painting with its frame.


Diana and her Companions (downloadable image)

Girl with a Pearl Earring (downloadable image)

View of Delft (downloadable image)

Diana and her Companions (high-resolution of signature, backside and paintings with frame)

Girl with a Pearl Earring (high-resolution of signature, backside and paintings with frame)

View of Delft (high-resolution of signature, backside and paintings with frame)

  1. This paragraph was paraphrased from an article by: Gareth Hawker, "The National Gallery, London: The World-Leader in museums' online provision of photographic reproductions of painting." ARTWATCH UK online, directed by Michael Daley, 10th January 2011,
  2. The information is this paragraph is drawn from: Mitchell R. Rosen and Franziska S. Frey, "RIT American Museums Survey on Digital Imaging for Direct Capture of Artwork," Proc. IS&T Archiving Conference, 2005, 79–84
  3. RS Berns, FS Frey, MR Rosen, EP Smoyer and LA Taplin, "Direct Digital Capture of Cultural Heritage - Benchmarking American Museum Practices and Defining Future Needs Final Report," RIT (2005).