The Art of Artificial Intelligence: ‘The Next Rembrandt’

This year, Dutch banking organization ING unveiled The Next Rembrandt, a 3D-printed painting created by data and algorithms 347 years after the iconic Golden Age painter’s death.

Initiated by agency JWT Amsterdam, a team of data scientists, engineers and art historians from Microsoft, TU Delft and Mauritshuis came together with ING for the ambitious, first-of-its-kind project. Their first step in reviving the genius one of the Netherland’s most celebrated artists? Creating a database to study all 346 of Rembrandt’s paintings to decide what the subject matter should be. From the data they determined that the portrait needed to be of a caucasian male, aged somewhere between 30 and 40, wearing dark clothing and looking to the right.

Next, to generate features, a software system was designed to understand Rembrandt’s use of geometry, composition and painting. In layman’s terms, facial recognition algorithms were used to accurately master the style of the “Master of Light and Shadow” himself. Using a special ultraviolet ink, a 3D printer then created multiple layers to imitate the rough surface of a painting.

Eighteen months later and consisting of 148 million pixels distilled from all of Rembrandt’s paintings, the project was complete.

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The vividly realistic detail of ‘The Next Rembrandt’ (image from Hyperallergic)

Although the painting is controversial work of art — considered a masterpiece by some and a “fascinating exercise in connoisseurship” by the likes of The Verge and many others — the campaign has achieved global recognition as a triumph of pioneering technologies. In June, JWT was awarded 16 Lions at Cannes, including two Grand Prix and an Innovation Lion. By July, the campaign had received over a million mentions online.

What strikes me about ING’s campaign is the juxtaposition of Rembrandt’s Golden Age with today’s instantaneous, digital present as I consider both time periods testament to human genius. Further, the fact that ‘The Next Rembrandt’ has connected these different stages of history and human development through the medium of art speaks to how art is a timeless, cultural current.

I will admit that for me personally, the painting raises a lot of questions about art — questions I’ve been trying to answer over the course of the past few weeks, but suspect could take many years and several art history books for me to be able to answer with full certainty. Here are some of the things I’ve been busy complicating: rhetorically, if I saw The Next Rembrandt and did not know how the work came to fruition, would I view it any differently than a *real* Rembrandt?  Can art produced by a computer be considered genius in the same light as a piece of art created by the labor, skill and imagination of a human artist? Is computer-made art emotionless, and is it possible for art to exist without emotion?

Two weeks ago, my quest for understanding what makes something art led me back to Robert Cummings, a professor I had in London for a brilliantly designed course called the The Value of Art in Society. Having founded Christie’s Education program in the 70’s, Robert has actively engaged in the art world for decades; to have had him for a professor is very much like having a spiritual art guide and a true privilege. After writing to Robert about my dilemma in interpreting The Next Rembrandt, he sent me two immensely insightful links and offered me this advice: “…the bottom line is… if you can see it with your own eyes believe it, if you cannot see it with your eyes do not believe it.”

So, considering that I am viewing ‘The Next Rembrandt’ from my computer screen in Boston and see a work of art before my eyes…

With Robert’s guidance in mind, we all ultimately come to view art differently — our perspectives molded and carved from our opinions and personal histories. I have come to believe that it is therefore up to individuals to define what art truly means for themselves, and that personal opinions and museum signage ought to be tuned out to truly take in a piece of art.

Regardless of whether or not JWT produced a true artistic masterpiece with ING, ‘The Next Rembrandt’ indisputably represents a major achievement in creative thinking. Art also can again be seen as a medium through which a brand can garner attention and raise awareness in a way that breaks away from the mundane. Looking ahead, this artistic use of data and technology should significantly raise the bar for content generation. 

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Details from ‘The Next Rembrandt’

Final note: Robert sent me this BBC documentary, Bricks!, which similarly discusses the contemplative, philosophically demanding question of ‘is this art?’ A compelling story about a controversial decision to include an installation of seemingly mundane bricks in Tate Modern, Robert happens to be a featured commentator in the documentary as well. In case the link does not work, you can read about the Bricks! controversy here.

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