Facial Recognition provides insight to famous paintings

Anyone who has been to art museums is familiar with the predicament that art historians have been facing for hundreds of years: identifying the individuals in paintings.

But now, thanks to new funding awarded to University of California at Riverside, this university will be able to put facial recognition technology to use in an attempt to help unlock the mystery of some of the more famous pieces of art.

Image courtesy of Corbis

The idea for the project was inspired by police and forensic television shows, where investigators used computer vision technology to recognize and track down faces of mystery persons. Currently, this kind of technology measures what is known as key features, such as the distance between eyes or someone’s mouth and nose.

For the new project, which will begin next month, the selected team will examine the death masks of people whose identities are known, and compare them to various pieces of artwork, such as portraits and sculpted busts. Assuming this works on the known individuals and their corresponding faces in artwork, the technology can then be applied to art subjects who are unknown, with hopes of any number of them somehow matching up with the database of known faces outside of the art realm.

One thing to consider is that some people may have aged, but just as there is technology to imagine how a kidnapped child might develop and change as he or she ages, so this same kind of algorithm will be applied to art.

Of course, there are plenty of obstacles standing in the way. The most obvious is that art is merely two-dimensional. Additionally, many artists have been known to render their subjects differently, either because of artistic interpretation or due to an attempt to flatter the subject. But even so, this project is the first step in the direction of attempting to crack the code of who the subjects in some of the more famous works of art truly are.