Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mathematician Helps with Art Attribution

I sometimes start my lectures by talking with students about art that has recently been in the news. Tonight, though, it was a student who shared an interesting news item. She had overheard people discussing this NPR story about Daniel Rockmore, a math professor at Dartmouth College.

Rockmore is using his mathematical skills to help determine if drawings are correctly attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a Northern Renaissance artist. Bruegel used various pen strokes which art connoisseurs have noted to be especially characteristic of the artist's work. Nevertheless, connoisseurs have had difficulty in concretely identifying some of Bruegel's work (e.g. the above image of an Alpine landscape (Morgan Library and Museum) was attributed Bruegel until recently). In order to help determine which strokes are Bruegel-like and which ones are not, Rockmore used his math skills to create a computer program that analyzes the pen strokes.

It sounds like an interesting program. It makes me wonder more about how computers and technology will affect the future practice of connoisseurship. Could future art attribution be left completely in the hands of technology, instead of actual connoisseurs? I imagine that couldn't happen, but it's an interesting/scary thought.

Rockmore made an interesting point at the end of the article, explaining that this program is a way to deconstruct art and determine what it means to be Picasso-like or Bruegel-like. In a way, I think that's true, but I also think that an artist's "hand" and styles can never be completely, concretely deconstructed. Even if an artist is relatively consistent in a technique, stylistic approach or color scheme, artists are subjective to change and variation. Although I think Rockmore has an interesting and useful idea, I don't think it can find all of the answers to explaining an artist's style.