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Can you tell the difference between Rembrandt and an algorithm?

Spanish artist Sergio Albiac used AI to create a portrait series so deeply human, they could have been signed by the Dutch master himself.

Very few artists in the history of the world were able to capture people’s nature with the precision, humanity, and humor of Dutch masters like Rembrandt or Hals. Could a machine ever be trained to do the same? That’s the premise of Sergio Albiac’s series, You have learnt nothing.

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Like the work that came out of the golden age of Dutch painting, these paintings may look like the product of oil, brushes, and fingers. But, like the rest of Albiac’s work, these portraits are actually the result of the artist’s computer code.

This series, like many other similar projects, was created using a Generative Adversarial Network that Albiac developed himself. The system consists of two neural networks. One is trained to generate portraits based on training data from a database of real Dutch masterpieces, while the second one evaluates its output and compares it to the actual paintings. Albiac told me via email that he used around 300 paintings to create the training data, selected from the high-res digital collection published by the Rijksmuseum: “Most portraits in my training dataset are 17th century Dutch paintings, some other portraits from 18th and 19th centuries.” With that evaluation data in hand, the first AI refined its skills, producing new paintings that were evaluated again by the second neural network in an interactive process that resulted in the images you see in this article.

The deformed visages of the final portraits almost seem like an evolution of the caricaturesque style many of the original paintings verge on. Some of them are so exaggerated that they even seem to spill into Francisco de Goya territory–an artist who, like Rembrandt and later Velazquez, elevated the precise art of physical portraiture, combining the grotesque and social criticism into radiographies of the human soul. “Queens and noblemen then and state-of-the-art hallucinations now, these people seem to smile at our contemporary propensity to confuse knowledge with wisdom,” Albiac writes of the series. “Their faces are as grotesque as our ability to repeat mistakes.”

[Image: Sergio Albiac]

It’s amazing to see machine learning to push portraiture forward. Of course, the machine isn’t conscious of what it’s doing here–but Albiac is. “Code is art,” he says on his website. Looking at the faces churned out by his code, I can only agree with him.

In addition to the video above, the artist is also creating a series of limited edition 8 x 8-inch giclée prints on fine art paper. You can write to him or subscribe to his mailing list to learn when they will be available.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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