The Next Rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn was one of the most influential classical painters, and the world lost his amazing talent when he died nearly four centuries ago. And yet his newest masterpiece was unveiled only yesterday. How? By scanning and analyzing Rembrandt’s works, a computer was able to create a new painting in near-perfect mimicry of Rembrandt’s style. It has been named, appropriately, ‘The Next Rembrandt’.

The Next Rembrandt project began when, in October 2014, the Dutch financial institution ING spoke with J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam advertising agency about creating a project that would show innovation in Dutch art. The creative director for J. Water Thompson, Bart Korsten, proposed a simple question in honor of a master Dutch painter.

“Can you teach a computer how to paint like Rembrandt?”

Many groups and types of people came together to answer that question. ING, Microsoft, Delft University of Technology, the Mauritshuis in the Hague, and Museum Het Rembrandthuis assembled a team of art historians,  software developers, scientists, engineers, and data analysts. The team built a software system that was capable of understanding and generating new features based on Rembrandt’s unique style.

They began by taking 3D scans of the 346 paintings by the artist and analyzing them to determine common elements shared amongst the pieces. Based on what the team saw, they felt that in order to best capture Rembrandt’s style the software should create a painting similar to his works. The computer was told to paint a portrait of a caucasian male with facial hair, 30-40 years old, wearing dark clothing with a hat and collar, and that he be facing to the right.

Rembrandt printingWhen the software was told to finally use all of the data the team had collected, it created ‘The Next Rembrandt’. The painting consists of over 148 million pixels, based on more than 160,000 fragments of the artist’s’ works. Most importantly, this is not merely a computer image, but was actually 3D printed so that the texture of Rembrandt’s brush strokes could also be captured. The final result is a painting that looks exactly like an original Rembrandt.

This new advance in art and technology working together is sure to raise concerns. Does this qualify as a forgery? Who is the painting attributed to? What does this mean for art going forward? It is hard to say.

While there are certainly chances for abuse of this technology, there are also many new opportunities to learn from it. By using computers to analyze the works of past master artists, perhaps we can come to better understand what it is that makes a work of art a masterpiece. And while for now this technology can only be used to mimic and replicate one artist, this could be a step toward truly brand new pieces works that are created by a computer drawing on the work of thousands of artists.

There is an old quote about writing that goes:

“If you steal from one author it is plagiarism; if you steal from many authors it is research.”

Who is to say the same doesn’t apply to art?

  • Gabriel A Petrie

    “This new advance in art and technology working together is sure to raise concerns. Does this qualify as a forgery? Who is the painting attributed to? What does this mean for art going forward? It is hard to say.”

    These questions (and the ambivalent conclusion) are rather flippant.

  • lump1

    I can answer all those dumb rhetorical questions. Is this a forgery? No, that would require dishonesty about authorship. Who is the painting attributed to? The authors of the software. What does this mean for art going forward? It’s another tool (that will produce novelties, but no “great” artworks).

    Copying another artist’s style has been at the core of art. DeBeers commissioned a faux Vivaldi tune for their diamond commercials. What would be awesome is a “Rembrandt-animated” movie generated by this software (collaborating with people). I’d watch that! Also, Klimt and Schiele movies would be very interesting.

  • Mike Loukides

    Agree. And here’s a rhetorical question that I don’t think is so dumb: who *wants* another Rembrandt? What makes Rembrandt important (and valuable) has something to do with his position in the history of painting. Faux-Rembrandt 4 centuries later? Just not that interesting or, for that matter, surprising. An interesting solution to a technical problem, but that’s as far as it goes.

    I don’t want a portrait of myself painted in the style of Rembrandt and I don’t see why anyone would, except perhaps small-time dictators. It might work as a fun gag gift, sort of like a New York Times front page with a computer-generated article celebrating your birthday. We just don’t need (for any value of “need”, including aesthetic ones) more Rembrandt-like paintings. Now, a Rembrandt-animated movie: that would be pretty cool.

  • Sideburns

    This is not the next Rembrandt. It’s a computer-generated image in the style of Rembrandt. Is it art? I’d think so. Does it look like a typical Rembrandt? Yes, at least to me. Does that make it a Rembrandt? No.

  • Rex Thorne

    >An interesting solution to a technical problem, but that’s as far as it goes.

    That’s all it needs to be.

    >Now, a Rembrandt-animated movie: that would be pretty cool.

    And this is the essential first step that can easily lead to that movie. I think we can agree this is pretty cool.

    I’m imagining a future home PC able to render animated films that are distributed as instructions and voice work, rendered in an art style chosen by the viewer.

  • Mike Loukides

    Yeah, I’m reacting more to the breathless article than to the technology itself. As, I think, is lump1.

  • novel_compound

    It’s a glorified Photoshop project.

  • Po Tato

    Before we know they will have another deep learner composing ‘the next Beethoven symphony’

    How about a next “I M Pei” building masterpiece?

  • jnk9

    Good artists copy; great artists steal – Picasso

  • quatermass

    Well, it was remarkably unimpressive for all that effort.

  • partofthepuzzle

    As long as it has 44 stories of plywood windows!

  • wonky tonky

    to me it proves art is overrated..

  • ziplock9000

    It’s fundamentally NOT