A 'New' Rembrandt: From The Frontiers Of AI And Not The Artist's Atelier

Apr 6, 2016
Originally published on April 7, 2016 8:26 am

A new Rembrandt painting unveiled in Amsterdam Tuesday has the tech world buzzing more than the art world.

That's because the painting is the creation of a 3-D printer — and not the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn himself, who has been dead for almost 450 years.

"The Next Rembrandt," as it's been dubbed, was the brainchild of Bas Korsten, creative director at the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson in Amsterdam.

A digital reconstruction of the face of Jesus Christ — based on skulls found in Jerusalem — inspired Korsten, he says.

"I thought, well, if you can basically take historical data and then create something new out of it, why can't we distill the artistic DNA of a painter out of his body of work and create a new artwork out of that?" Korsten tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "And that's how the idea was born."

The new portrait is the product of 18 months of analysis of 346 paintings and 150 gigabytes of digitally rendered graphics.

Everything about the painting — from the subject matter (a Caucasian man between the age of 30 and 40) to his clothes (black, wide-brimmed hat, black shirt and white collar), facial hair (small mustache and goatee) and even the way his face is positioned (facing right) — was distilled from Rembrandt's body of work.

"A computer learned, with artificial intelligence, how to re-create a new Rembrandt right eye," Korsten explains. "And we did that for all facial features, and after that, we assembled those facial features using the geometrical dimensions that Rembrandt used to use in his own work."

The statistical data even determined the type of painting — a portrait, which was the most significant portion of the artist's work, and were most common between 1632 and 1642.

The portrait looks like an actual Rembrandt, right down to the texture of the brushstrokes, which the 3-D printer mimicked. But Korsten will be the first to say that it won't fool experts.

"I wish it was that good, and it isn't," he says. "I think the expert eye sees that this isn't a real Rembrandt. And it's also got to do with the state of technology that we're in, the amount of time that we had for the process," he says. "Every extra month would have (made) a better painting."

Even a better painting will never be the same as one by the actual artist. But Korsten says the program — which started as a project for ING, the Dutch bank — could be used to help restore lost or damaged art.

"If a piece of a painting is lost, if it's burned and you're left with only 20 percent of a painting, you could, with this technique, maybe re-create the other 80 percent," he says. "So other than the advertising side of this project, I think the outcome is going to have a bigger effect, bigger impact."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Amsterdam, a new Rembrandt unveiled yesterday has the tech world buzzing.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

That's right, the tech world, not the art world so much.

SHAPIRO: That's because the new Rembrandt is not an actual Rembrandt, but a 3-D printer creation.

CORNISH: Of course, the man, Rembrandt van Rijn, has been dead for almost 450 years. The ad firm J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam used a computer program to analyze 346 official works by the artist. Bas Korsten is the director of the project.

BAS KORSTEN: A computer learned how to re-create a new Rembrandt right eye, and we did that for all facial features. And after that, we assembled those facial features using the geometrical dimensions that Rembrandt used to use in his own work.

CORNISH: The program came up with a portrait of a middle-aged bearded man, just like one of the portraits that made Rembrandt famous.

SHAPIRO: And it looks like an actual Rembrandt, right down to the texture of the brushstrokes, which the 3-D printer re-created.

CORNISH: But Korsten will be the first to tell you it's not legit.

KORSTEN: I wish it was that good, and it isn't. I think the expert eye sees that this isn't a real Rembrandt. And that's also got to do with the state of technology that we're in, the amount of time that we had. I mean, every extra month would have been a better painting.

SHAPIRO: Even a better painting will never be the same as one by the actual artist. But Korsten says the program, which started as just a PR stunt for a client, could be a boon for the art of restoring lost masterpieces.

KORSTEN: Because you can imagine that if a piece of painting is lost, if it's burned or - and you're left with, for instance, only 20 percent of a painting, then you could, with this technique, maybe re-create the other 80 percent based on the 20 percent that is left.

SHAPIRO: In the meantime, the Rembrandt 2.0 will be on display in a place to be determined for tech geeks, art lovers and everyone else by this summer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.