Episode 4 - The Story of How AI Reconstructed a Rembrandt Masterpiece

Guest: Professor Robert Erdmann

No area of activity has so distinguished natural intelligence from artificial intelligence than creative arts like music, drama, poetry, painting, and dance.  While AI researchers have built software that tries to create art, the results have been profoundly disappointing - weird dramas, strange poetry, and sounds that only the authors would call music.

In this episode of Mind the Gap: dialogs on artificial intelligence we will consider the application of AI techniques to help people better understand one of the greatest paintings in the world, Rembrandt van Rijn’s “The Night Watch.”  This famous painting is the premier cultural icon of the Netherlands and the centerpiece of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  The painting has a long and complex history.  It has been housed in several locations over the centuries.  It has been the subject of numerous conservation projects over its nearly four centuries of existence.

One of the less known episodes in the painting’s past occurred in 1715 when pieces of the colossal painting were cut off in order to fit it into the Amsterdam Town Hall.  The cutting was particularly egregious on the left side of the painting, whence the images of three people in the original were lost.

While the removed sections of the canvas have not been found, a small copy, which survives, was made by another painter not long after The Night Watch was completed.  Working from images of the copy along with remarkably detailed photographic images of the original, Dr Robert Erdmann has used AI to approximately reconstruct the lost portions of the canvas.  Dr Erdmann is the senior scientist at the Rijksmuseum and also a professor at the University of Amsterdam where he holds appointments in two departments - The Institute of Physics and the Department of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage.

The objective was to make the reconstruction as similar as possible to the original.

In today’s episode we will discuss with Dr Erdmann how he went about this remarkable and inspiring recreation.

Recorded: 2021-08-27

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