Welcome to the inaugural edition of the Art Eye-D newsletter!
Reading & Seeing
Art (or “art”) generated by artificial intelligence (AI) is suddenly all around us – threatening careers and confronting longstanding notions of creativity, not to mention humanity. But we enjoyed a creepy laugh at the Pope wearing Balenciaga, Prince Harry starring in a Vincent van Gogh biopic, and of course Trump in prison skivvies. In Steve’s May 7, 2023 opinion piece in the Boston Globe, he considers who, if anyone, actually owns art generated by computers in response to verbal prompts. A future essay will discuss the rights of artists who suddenly find their styles convincingly mimicked by these systems.
Last year, in his article The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Generation (Leonardo 55 (4); pre-print available on arXiv), Steve considered the more basic question of what it means to be creative, and what it means when AI creates art that is indistinguishable from that of human artists. AI-generated artwork has since won prestigious prizes, sometimes without disclosure of the work’s computational origins. Most recently, a piece called The Electrician by Boris Eldagsen (right) took first prize in the Creative category at the World Photography Organization’s Sony World Photography Awards. It wasn’t made with a camera. Eldagsen subsequently refused the award, saying, "AI is not photography. I applied ... to find out if the competitions are prepared for AI images to enter. They are not."
Adventures in Authentication
In The Art Newspaper, Martin Bailey asks whether the Philadelphia Museum of Art has a previously unknown Vermeer in storage. Based on analysis of paint samples, a former Rijksmuseum scientific specialist believes that this painting of a young woman playing guitar is a long-ignored autograph Vermeer – not a copy of the accepted work known as Guitar Player in London’s Kenwood House. Also controversial is his suggestion that Vermeer may not have worked alone, as has traditionally been believed. Unfortunately, the Philadelphia painting is in poor condition, which led to its downgrade as a copy nearly a century ago.
In other Vermeer news, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has concluded that its painting Girl with a Flute was not, in fact, painted by Vermeer. Although it appears to depict the same sitter portrayed in the NGA's Girl with a Red Hat, whose attribution to Vermeer is undisputed, museum curators, conservators and scientists concluded they have different authors.
Using microscopic pigment analysis and advanced imaging technology, the scientists pointed to different ways of handling paint as distinguishing Girl with a Flute from autograph Vermeers – and adding another voice to the growing chorus of scholars who ask whether Vermeer worked with others. The Rijksmuseum, on the other hand, begs to differ and is currently exhibiting the work as a Vermeer. Maybe a computer could resolve the controversy!
No computers were needed to refute the authenticity of 25 paintings exhibited last year by the Orlando Museum of Art as the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. In June 2022, the FBI raided the museum and seized the works – which were purportedly found stashed in the storage unit of a Hollywood screenwriter. Too bad a FedEx logo printed on the back of one of the paintings was created in 1994, six years after Basquiat’s death.
Art historian and Rembrandt expert Gary Schwartz makes a strong case for attributing the portrait Rembrandt in a Red Beret to the master himself. Briefly on view in The Hague earlier this year, the painting has largely been out of sight since vanishing in a daring 1921 heist that involved scaling the Grand Ducal Museum in Weimar, Germany, climbing up a lightning rod, and breaking through a window. Just after World War II, an Ohio woman brought the heavily damaged painting to the Dayton Art Institute, which turned it over to the storied “Monuments Men” (actually the Art Looting Investigation Unit in Washington, D.C.). The woman’s husband claimed to have come into possession of the painting following a drunken debauch in New York City with three German soldiers, who took his money but left him Rembrandt in a Red Beret and two other rolled-up paintings.
Finally restored to West Germany after decades in bureaucratic limbo, the painting was promptly de-attributed in 1969, along with many other purported Rembrandts, by the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP)– a panel of Dutch art experts charged with purging spurious Rembrandts from the canon. Many RRP de-attributions have since been reconsidered, and in a new book, Dr. Schwartz argues that Rembrandt in a Red Beret – having been unfairly judged due to the damage it suffered over a stress-filled life – should be recognized as the master’s work.
Never Enough Leonardo
Was Leonardo Jewish? In attempting to refute persistent rumors of Leonardo’s foreign origins, Italian historian Carlo Vecce has instead come to believe that Leonardo’s mother, Caterina, was a Circassian Jew – making Leonardo Jewish by matrilineal descent. Oy, such a story!
Our own adventures in Leonardo’s world involve the controversial Salvator Mundi, famously sold at auction in 2017 for a record $450.3 million. The buyer remains anonymous and the painting’s current whereabouts are unknown. But some reports place it on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's superyacht Serene.
Our AI analysis, described in our article A Neural Network Looks at Leonardo’s(?) Salvator Mundi, strongly attributes most of the painting to Leonardo but suggests that someone else painted the blessing hand and part of the background. Our mixed (and carefully qualified) findings, however, did not stop one Italian news site from screaming that American researchers had determined the Salvator Mundi could be a fake! Given the work’s purported owner, Andrea still looks nervously over her shoulder and steers clear of Saudi embassies.
No, alas, we did not appear in The Lost Leonardo, an excellent movie recounting the painting’s picaresque travels from its sale at auction in 1958 for £45 to the blockbuster 2017 Christie’s sale. But the filmmaker interviewed us on camera for several hours. Left unceremoniously on the cutting-room floor, we were kindly mentioned in the credits and can now boast an IMDb entry.
Finally, SM’s absence from the public eye since 2019 has not deterred the opening of the Salvator Mundi Museum of Art, dedicated to all things SM including a mysterious 17th-century tapestry and the work’s animated appearance on The Simpsons. And if you believe all this, we have a puffy Balenciaga worn by the actual Pope to sell you.
More Shameless Self-Promotion
We’re thrilled to share that our article Complementing Connoisseurship with Artificial Intelligence was published in the October 2022 issue of the Wiley journal Curator: The Museum Journal – we even got the cover! In this article, we provide an overview of our art and AI endeavors starting with our initial speculations about whether we could develop an AI system that would assist with art authentication questions right through our most recent project to date – testing whether that system might work as well with drawings as with paintings.
In Analysis, Attribution, and Authentication of Drawings with Convolutional Neural Networks (paywalled; preprint freely accessible on Research Square), published in the International Journal of Arts and Technology, we delve further into that latter project. Artists have created drawings for many purposes over the centuries, but generally they are not accorded the care given to “finished” works like paintings. As a result, they are susceptible to damage and other visible indignities. Moreover, artists use multiple media with very different visual characteristics when making drawings. Was our system robust enough to accommodate all these variations? We used drawings by Raphael to explore this question, and were happy to learn that it was indeed!
Recent & Current Projects
Over the past few months, we’ve been collaborating with partners in Germany to see if our system can judge the authenticity of works that are more abstract. This family has a large collection of paintings by a living artist who has firmly identified authentic and forged works. This relatively large body of images (and the certainty with which authenticity has been assigned) offered us a unique opportunity. Moreover, these collectors have contacts in the modern and contemporary art market from whom they were able to obtain high-resolution images of works by comparative artists that we could use to train our system. Until now, we have been unable to test our system on 20th and 21st century art because of the difficulty of obtaining high-resolution images of copyrighted works.
We are very pleased to report our system demonstrated high accuracy in distinguishing authentic works by the artist in question from forgeries and works by other artists. We look forward to reporting more fully on this project in the near future.
Outside the realm of art, Steve has adapted our AI system to help identify abnormalities in medical images (pathology slides and x-rays such as mammograms). More info at www.medaeye.com.
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