The Next Rembrandt: Computer Learns to Paint Based on Artist’s Work


They’re doing our shopping, manufacturing our goods, driving our cars, and now producing our art. A computer has just become The Next Rembrandt.

Over the course of two years, Delft University of Technology, two art museums, the ING financial firm, and Microsoft collaborated on an experiment that sought to virtually reproduce Rembrandt van Rijn’s unique style. The project’s inception began with a simple question posed by the creative director of advertising agency J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam: “Can you teach a computer how to paint like Rembrandt?”

The answer, apparently, is yes.

346 carefully studied paintings later, The Next Rembrandt Project has done just that. By digitally analyzing Rembrandt’s work to find its most common elements and techniques, the computer was taught to draw in a style that bears an almost disturbing likeness to the artist’s actual body of work.

The computer was instructed to create a portrait of a Caucasian male with facial hair, between the age of 30 and 40, wearing black clothing with a white collar and a hat, facing right. It then utilized data on more than 160,000 fragments of Rembrandt’s paintings to render a 148 million pixel portrait so detailed that it almost perfectly mimics details down to the texture of Rembrandt’s brush strokes on canvas.

Still, TNR isn’t planning on actually replacing human art. Rather, Technology Director Emmanuel Flores says the team simply “wanted to understand what makes a face look like a Rembrandt.” The goal was to “make a machine that works like Rembrandt,” and in so doing “understand better what makes a masterpiece a masterpiece.”

That said, the ability to 3D print a near-perfect representation of the work of one of the most legendary artists in history suggests a level of artistic acumen that could become impossible for us to distinguish from human creativity. Disregarding the romantic notion of art’s emergence from the human soul raises even more questions about our continued relevance in even the most creative fields.

Thanks a lot, technology.

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