As a painting, Van Gogh's The Starry Night is iconic. We all think we know what it looks like; vibrant stars shining in the night sky, translated to canvas in the Dutchman's inimitable post-Impressionist style. But how closely have you ever actually inspected it? A trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City would allow you to but, well, it's a long way to go. And even if you did, the likelihood of "gallery rage", provoked by your fellow tourists irritatingly crowding around one of the Greatest Hits Of Art, is high.
The launch last week of the Google Art Project is, perhaps, the solution to such problems. Using the same technology as Google Street View, where you can "walk" down real streets on screen thanks to its super-high-resolution photo-capturing technology, the Google Art Project took snapshots of 17 major museums across the world. The results are stunning. Zooming in on Starry Night, every tiny brushstroke can be seen in incredible detail. Even if you took a magnifying glass to New York and pushed through the throng, you'd be unlikely to experience such clarity.
The museums involved in the project include Tate Britain in London, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, The Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Reina Sofia in Madrid. At this early stage their entire collections aren't on show - the visitor is restricted by the rooms the camera was wheeled through as it took 360-degree panoramic images every few steps.
But the potential is huge. "Walking" through the gallery is like opening a treasure chest of high art. When a painting catches the eye, a quick click on the attached "+" sign homes in on the work in magical depth. Botticelli's masterpiece at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, The Birth Of Venus, seems to shimmer and you can actually see the breath of the Greek god of the west wind, Zephyr. At the press launch in London last week, the director of the Tate admitted he'd never before seen the family throwing sticks at a goose in Pieter Bruegel's world-famous 16th-century painting The Harvesters.
On the right of the screen, too, there are drop-down boxes with added content; video, audio and biographical information. The result is a breath of fresh air: 21st-century technology making centuries-old art more accessible, available and, perhaps, understandable than ever before.
Anna De Paula Hanika, one of the project leads for the Google Art Project, is clear that the concept was always about enthusing people about art rather than showing off Google's whizzy technology. "I'm really enthusiastic about engaging people who don't have a background in art," she says. "For a lot of people art is still quite elitist, and they feel they can't possibly appreciate it unless they've been 'educated' in it. I feel strongly that this doesn't need to be the case, that art can be for everyone, something that everyone should be able to access and enjoy."
Of course, if you really needed to see what, for example, Canaletto's View of the Grand Canal looked like one evening, you could always turn to a search engine's image bank, or look it up on Wikipedia. But the beauty of the Google Art Project isn't just the opportunity to experience Canaletto at an unprecedented level of detail and resolution, but that you can also see it in the context of the Uffizi Gallery. A flat jpeg will never be able to convey the physical form a painting takes - its size or its scale. Or, indeed, what it's next to.
"That's so important to what we're trying to do," says De Paula Hanika. "Not least because the galleries themselves are works of art, in a way. I knew about The Hermitage of course, but I'd never really got an understanding of what it was like, having never been to Russia. So when we got the Street View imagery back, late one night, I just sat there with amazement and wonder at this incredibly rich building. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before. I was exploring it for hours."
Naturally, there will be those who worry that, as culture is increasingly experienced digitally, the concept of seeing art as it should be seen - in the flesh - will diminish. Only last month The National reported on VIP, the first major online art fair. But De Paula Hanika is confident that the Google Art Project adds to a gallery experience rather than replaces it.
"I think anyone who is concerned that visitor numbers might drop is missing the point, really," she says. "We genuinely want people to see these works via their laptops and then be enthused enough to go and experience them first-hand. In no way will I claim that looking at Botticelli's Birth Of Venus on a laptop is the same as being there. But the way you experience the work on the site is the first step to developing a personal and emotional bond to it."
You'd expect De Paula Hanika to be enthusiastic about a project she's been leading since its inception 18 months ago. But the experiences she's had with the site - she tells me of being distracted for hours by the way different artists paint folds in clothing - have been mirrored in the unanimous acclaim it's received in the week since it went live. The Google Art Project is so user friendly, it's not surprising art critics have marvelled at the little details they've discovered in paintings they thought they knew. As De Paula Hanika says, you find those details precisely because you're having fun.
Still, with 385 rooms to explore and nearly 1,000 artworks, there's a lot to take on board to start with, so where would she advise people to start?
"This sounds like a cop-out," she laughs "But my one recommendation would be just to explore, because you come across so much rich work. I went and looked for a Rembrandt at The Hermitage that I knew very well, but because you can look for other paintings by that artist on the site, I discovered a smaller work by him in a museum in Germany which is just as wonderful. Making those links across museums is great.
"But if you have to push me, there's so much in Holbein's The Ambassadors at The National Gallery, you can literally spend ages with it. That's a good starting point. And I must say, the Turner and Whistler paintings are fascinating. A lot of these paintings are very well protected behind glass or barriers, so to be able to zoom in and get close to the colours and the paintwork - and then be able to read about them too - is such an engaging experience. My appreciation for these artists has rocketed."
For De Paula Hanika, if one person somewhere in the world experiences, enjoys and perhaps shares the featured work (there's a mycollections feature which works very much like creating your own playlist on iTunes) then the Google Art Project will have done its job. In the longer term, the hope is that more museums will make their galleries public in this way - it only takes a day, for example, to capture a room at The Hermitage.
Whatever the future for the Google Art Project, the way museums work - and how people use them - has undeniably changed with this website. No longer will it be acceptable simply to hang paintings in galleries and expect people to enjoy them. "It'll be interesting to see the efforts they make in the future to be more inclusive, to increase accessibility," she says. "I don't mind if the success of the Google Art Project encourages them to work on their own innovations - I hope this site is the first step not just for us, but the museums themselves."