I always preach that art is best viewed in person, but I understand that this isn’t always possible. Due to finances, scheduling, geography, or many other factors, it might not be easy for you to enjoy artwork up close. So, here are some alternatives. Like the in-person suggestions I made in my last post, all of these art-viewing experiences are 100% free. Also on this list are lots of places where you can learn about art online – books, podcasts, articles, and more – all for free.
I substantially updated this article and added lots of new resources on September 5, 2018. I will continue to update, so check back often, and also learn where you can tour great architecture online for free in my new article.
- the-athenaeum.org contains (at the time of writing) over 250,000 images of artwork from all around the world. It’s possible to sort by artist, medium, subject, and several other criteria.
- Google Arts & Culture has partnered with major museums and other cultural institutions around the world to offer images, museum walkthroughs, online exhibitions, and other educational features. You can sort, explore, and even create your own virtual collection. There’s also an app.
- ArtUK is a massive project aiming to catalogue all the artwork in the entire United Kingdom. At the time of writing, it includes over 200,000 paintings freely viewable online. According to the website, many of the works live in museum storage, which means that ArtUK is the only place the public can see them.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection database offers high-resolution photos of its impressive and encyclopedic holdings. Many of the images are open access, which means they are completely free to use for any purpose. (Many, but not all, so check for the “OA Public Domain” logo before using.) The website also includes tons of useful materials such as the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, free access to the full text of selected museum publications, podcasts such as “82nd & Fifth“, blogs, and more. I believe the general search bar covers all these categories of media.
- Daily Art is an app that delivers a work of art and short, informative text to your iPhone or iPad every day. Daily Art also has DailyArt Magazine with even more artwork and information.
- Websites like Hyperallergic, Colossal, and My Modern Met seek out fun and exciting works of art in diverse media and from all corners of the globe. You’ll find stuff there you would never get to see otherwise. Atlas Obscura sometimes has artistic and architectural content as well.
- Museums and galleries often curate virtual exhibitions to accompany physical ones. Poke around these institutions’ websites or follow them on social media to find out when new ones are coming out. According to My Modern Met, you can visit these twelve museums online.
- Lots of Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram accounts give you a constant stream of art on your newsfeed. There are far too many to list here, so search based on your interests. Accounts run by museums, galleries, auction houses, artists, and art-related websites are good places to start.
- Museum exhibition catalogues and coffee table books usually contain large, good-quality photographs of art and architecture. Many are available at your local library. I particularly enjoy coffee table books about architecture; they are both plentiful and comprehensive.
- If you want to learn some art history, I suggest two great websites that I reference all the time. Smart History is written by art history PHDs, but it’s aimed at a general audience. They have lots of high-quality images and videos as well as text posts. Much of Smart History’s content is also available through Khan Academy Art History. Khan Academy is a great place to learn about pretty much anything. It runs on donations, so it’s free for anybody to use at any time. The Art Story contains lengthy and detailed entries about the history of modern fine arts, decorative arts, and architecture. They’ve also started to branch out beyond modernism in the strictest sense to cover wider art history topics. The content is superb. Both of these websites run on donations.
- If you want to enjoy medieval manuscripts, you can use the Digitized Medieval Manuscripts App (DMMapp) to help you find digitized manuscripts in collections all over the world. If you don’t feel like searching through DMMapp, head to the British Library’s Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, which is at the top of the field. If you want to learn more about the manuscripts you see, I recommend the wonderfully-named Sexy Codicology, while is DMMapp’s blog, as well as manuscript specialist Erik Kwakkel’s blog Medieval Books.
- MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art in New York) will let you digitally experience every exhibition the museum has ever had. This includes reading the exhibition catalog and looking at photos of the works on display in the exhibition. It also has some online audio features about more recent exhibits.
- The Getty Institute in California has a large online library of Getty-published art books available for free. You can read them on line or download them. The Getty is hard-core into using new technology in art history, so the institute has lots of resources to offer. The collection database includes many open source images. It also has a great blog, The Iris, where it publishes all the new resources.
- Free-to-read modern art books and images online via the Guggenheim.
- UMass Dartmouth has put together a long list of free online art resources, including virtual museum tours, lectures, and videos. I have not visited each link personally.
- The Tate museum in England has a wealth of images and other information freely available online.
- You can also tour great architecture in 360 degrees from the comfort of your home. Read more here.
- You can learn lots about art history and related topics by participating in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). MOOCs are free online courses produced by universities and taught by professors. They are available in pretty much all subjects, and offerings change frequently. My favorite websites for MOOCs are Coursera, Future Learn, and edx, but there are many others. The courses themselves are free; you only need to pay if you want to receive a certificate of course completion, which is completely unnecessary unless you are taking courses for job-related purposes. I have loved all the MOOCs I’ve participated in. But keep in mind that they will give you homework.
- Two great companies offer online courses on the history of art, architecture, design, and culture. Paris-based Artips has courses available in both French and English, while the Portuguese Citaliarestauro lists offerings in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. (Don’t forget to check out Citaliarestauro’s “Gothic Architecture” and Artips’s “American Art History 1776-1945”, since both were designed and written by yours truly!)
- If you want to clarify some of the history behind artworks, especially very old artworks, Ancient History Encyclopedia is a fantastic and totally free reference for you. Five-Minute History is lighter and a lot of fun.
I want to give a huge shout-out to My Modern Met, which was my source for quite a few of the items on this list. The writers there find these free online art resources so much faster than I do. You can find more resources here in this article.