Professor Cornell uses digital techniques to unravel mysteries in paintings

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Cornell’s art collection includes an etching by Rembrandt from around 1641 with the back marked with notes from a former dealer or collector. (Heather Ainsworth / AP)

Richard Johnson can see through the masterpieces of Rembrandt and van Gogh.

Cornell University’s professor of electrical and computer engineering is a digital art detective, able to unravel the mysteries of a work’s age and authenticity by analyzing its underlying canvas or paper.

Using high-resolution x-ray images, the 64-year-old scholar can actually determine if the paintings are from the same hand-woven canvas bolt, each having a thread density pattern that can be as unique as a digital print. Tying multiple pieces of canvas to the same bolt can strengthen the arguments for authenticity and even arrange the works in chronological order.

It is a valuable service to world-class museums that results from the unlikely cross-pollination of traditional art history and contemporary computing.

“By mixing the two groups together, we were able to do more than each group could have done separately when studying the paintings,” Johnson said amid an exhibition of Dutch paintings at Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. “We are not trying to replace the art historian, we are trying to extend their reach.”

Richard Johnson developed a way to date and authenticate century-old paintings. (Heather Ainsworth / AP)

Johnson is a tech wizard and an art lover – the rare person who can speak authoritatively about Rembrandt’s brushstrokes and adaptive feedback systems theory.

Although he didn’t make his first visit to an art museum until he was a scholarship student in Germany, Rembrandt’s packed rooms left him stunned.

Johnson merged the two worlds in 2007 with a stint as an adjunct researcher at the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. He began to examine high-resolution x-ray images of the canvases used by the 19th-century master.

Eventually, Johnson and Rice University professor Don Johnson (unrelated) developed digital “weave density maps” of webs that added computational power to what had been a laborious process. required researchers to study small samples with magnifying glasses.

“It proves [that] with the eye you make mistakes, ”said Louis van Tilborgh, senior researcher at the van Gogh Museum.

Van Tilborgh considers woven maps to be an important tool in the work of dating and precise ordering of all of van Gogh’s paintings.

The technique has also provided evidence to date “Sebastian de Morra” by Diego Velázquez. A separate analysis of 24 canvases by Johannes Vermeer supported the sometimes questioned attribution of a painting and provided new evidence to link two paintings in the National Gallery in London as complementary works.

“Self-portrait leaning on a stone ledge” is engraved at the bottom of this self-portrait by the famous Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669). (Heather Ainsworth / AP)

“It’s one more technical tool in the picture study box,” said Walter Liedtke, curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who worked with Johnson on the Vermeers.

“You take that additional evidence and attach it to – in the case of the two Vermeers in London – the analysis of the pigments, the iconography of the images, if they were together in their history at earlier dates. “

Researchers have been conducting scientific analyzes of works of art for some time. But it has become more common to use computers to analyze large amounts of digital data. Sometimes referred to as the history of computer art, it also includes the evaluation of brushstrokes for distinctive patterns.

In recent years, Johnson has left the canvas to other researchers as he focuses on paper. He analyzed the old-fashioned paper used by Rembrandt for his prints, paper which was made by applying paste to screens. Scholars know when Rembrandt carved the copper plates to make the prints, but they are often less sure when an individual print was made: was this one of the first prints, or did it come years older. late after the artist’s death?

Johnson uses high-resolution digital images of prints by Rembrandt belonging to the Cornell Museum to try to discern the patterns that the screens printed on the back of the prints. Separate prints cut from the same larger sheet of paper could be combined to provide the same type of contextual information revealed by the study of the canvas.

The details are different, but the idea of ​​finding useful models is the same, as is the idea of ​​bridging the gap between art and technology.

“My philosophy has always been to convince both parties that it was worth it and [that] they should talk to each other, ”Johnson said.

– Associated press


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