Faces Past
July 29, 2020 9:34 AM   Subscribe

Assisted by machine learning, artists and photographers are beginning to flesh out centuries-old paintings, statues and sculptures into portraits of living human beings not seen for thousands of years. In one quarantine project, Dan Voshart used Artbreeder, Photoshop, and meticulous research to create photoreal portraits of the 54 Emperors of the Roman Principate. Using similar technologies, Bas Uterwijk uses art sources to recreate the living people behind them: posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul (29 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
The Roman Emperor project is so cool! Looking at the Nerva-Antonine dynasty page, it seems like no GAN yet devised is powerful enough to render Lucius Verus's incredible hair.
posted by theodolite at 9:49 AM on July 29 [4 favorites]

Not directly related, but inspired by the footnotes on the emperors one -- it really is amazing how much the Roman Empire achieved, given the incredible instability. There's one island of stability for little more than a hundred years, and other than that so much murder and suicde.
posted by tavella at 9:53 AM on July 29 [4 favorites]

These are just incredible. And now I know the source of the Jesus picture that has been going around lately! Although I think my favorite is Napoleon--looking like a rumpled actor in a costume drama. (Artbreeder is so much fun to play with!)
posted by mittens at 9:57 AM on July 29

I just used Artbreeder to make a passable Philip K. Dick. It's a fun toy, to be sure.
posted by pipeski at 10:06 AM on July 29 [4 favorites]

These are cool, it's probably some sort of illusion, but for some of them it's as if you can see the actual person, something about the twinkle in their eye or the shape of the chin that makes you instantly feel you understand a little bit about them. Weird.
posted by chaz at 10:09 AM on July 29 [4 favorites]

Featuring Lyndon B. Johnson as Vespasian!
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 10:11 AM on July 29 [6 favorites]

That Jesus looks like the guy who always has the good weed.
posted by HumanComplex at 10:13 AM on July 29 [3 favorites]

Just linking to a Mary Beard lecture on how the attribution of statues to Roman emperors is usually way flimsier than we think. To start with, no, we do not know how Caesar actually looked.

Mistaken Identities: How to Identify a Roman Emperor
posted by sukeban at 10:16 AM on July 29 [8 favorites]

I've seen a historian on twitter being very uncomfortable with this data, as it guesses the skin colour of several emperors who we don't know that about, which has the potential of white-washing a very racially diverse empire.
posted by Canageek at 10:30 AM on July 29 [28 favorites]

aurelian as played by Jake Gyllenhaal
posted by dismas at 10:45 AM on July 29

Thanks for saying that, Canageek. I had a gut feeling that something was off about this and that seems like one big part of it. Generally, it just feels arrogant and weirdly presumptuous to me. Also like it's putting way too much faith in technological processes.

I mean, they're cool images and if it was just in fun, like if the framing was, hey, maybe they looked like this, aka artist's rendition of dinosaurs, that would be great. But this talk of "fleshing out" art into "portraits of living human beings not seen for thousands of years" feels fairly overblown to me.

Also, though, I'm glad Jesus of Nazareth is being portrayed as a brown-skinned person like he totally was and not as a blue eyed white person.
posted by overglow at 10:48 AM on July 29 [7 favorites]

I’ll say it: Caligula was hot
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:48 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]

Artificial Opinion about how humans would look based on art with a sometimes-tenuous connection to history.

All the more dangerous because you're not wrong, many "feel" very real - that feeling is actually machine learning feeding you back what was fed to it as most likely to "feel" right, making no assessment as to actual correctness.

Neat looks, but yes the intense whiteness seems unlikely.
posted by abulafa at 11:02 AM on July 29 [5 favorites]

Machiavelli certainly looks the imp...
posted by jim in austin at 11:03 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]

That Napoléon below the fold is haunting.
posted by notsnot at 11:07 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]

Nero looks believable. Kind of a leering, smug bully, like Future Man in "Bottle Rocket"
posted by thelonius at 11:19 AM on July 29

Nero looks a lot like Floyd Landis.
posted by cmfletcher at 11:27 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]

Augustus looks like a cross between Putin and Daniel Craig.
posted by slogger at 11:51 AM on July 29 [3 favorites]

An important thread about this from MF-favorite Bret Devereaux, author of that Helm’s Deep series and the piece on practical polytheism:
I don't want to trash the fellow who did this interesting project, but I think he needs to rethink some of the skin-tone choices.
We have a lot of frescos which give us a good sense of what the Romans thought the range of Italian skin color, and it's mostly darker than this. 1/7

I'm also struck by Septimius Severus here. We have period artwork of him (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Septimius_Severus#/​media/File:Carole_Raddato_​(13543792233).jpg) and he's way darker than this.
This fits into a broader problem where the popular imagination of Rome is defined by English BBC actors. That's not accurate. 3/7

Septimius Severus was North African, with Levantine heritage - as in he openly claimed Punic descent through his mother's side. Hadrian's mother was Spanish. Elagabalus was Syrian on his mother's side and by upbringing.
Rome was not a 'white guy club.' 6/7
posted by migurski at 11:57 AM on July 29 [29 favorites]

I've seen a historian on twitter being very uncomfortable with this data, as it guesses the skin colour of several emperors who we don't know that about, which has the potential of white-washing a very racially diverse empire.

For real. I think the project is a cool idea, but when I first opened it up, I was like... where's Septimius Severus? And then when I found him, I was like... but that's not even close to the way he's been described.

In the immortal words of Gus from Psych! "Black people hadn't been invented yet??"
posted by headspace at 12:33 PM on July 29 [3 favorites]

I really don't like the Bas Uterwijk pieces. They were all over my Facebook feed for a few days. They have a quality like photographs that have been extensively retouched in photoshop, stilted insted of still life, and I get almost no sense of who these people might have been.

The Rembrandt portrait, especially, irks me, because Rembrandt painted some of the most wonderful, isightful self portraits in the history of Western art, and the this picture captures none of that.
Mind, you, it's not really fair to Uterwijk to compare his work to Rembrandt's, but there it is.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 12:40 PM on July 29 [4 favorites]

Did George Washington have a lazy eye?
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:45 PM on July 29

I'm also struck by Septimius Severus here. We have period artwork of him (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Septimius_Severus#/media/File:Carole_Raddato_(13543792233).jpg) and he's way darker than this.

Yeah I did a course on the Severans during my MA (SO interesting - we were all kind of obsessed with them by the end of it) and also side-eyed the choice. Caracalla is a little darker than Septimius Severus in these, I guess, but it just looks like a guy with a dark tan. It shows in the source image for the Severan Tondo which is even on the Principate Part III page that they were depicted as much darker skinned! The one image of them with colour shows them as dark skinned and the guy is like nah, they were just tanned.
posted by urbanlenny at 1:04 PM on July 29 [2 favorites]

These are fantastic pictures. But the framing ("recreate the living people") is unfortunate. This reminds me of the recent tweet "reconstructing" an image of Obama:


Not only do they not reconstruct the real person, they whitewash him.

All of these techniques can add detail. But they're not reconstructing "the living person", only creating a photorealistic fantasy. Just because it's really well done doesn't mean that it's not a fantasy.

(E.g. the portrait of Jesus is beautiful. But we have zero sources on what he looked like.)
posted by zompist at 2:01 PM on July 29 [4 favorites]

Oh my god, this has done *nothing* but make my burning crush on Caracalla even worse than it was when all I had to reference was a photo of his bust in my high school art history textbook. Correction, now I guess I have a crush on all of them. Physically, not necessarily their deeds. Why are these guys all so hot?!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:07 PM on July 29

why does he have more hair!

Metafilter: I logged on to say :Featuring Lyndon B. Johnson as Vespasian! and somebody said it.
posted by clavdivs at 2:14 PM on July 29

It might be in one of the links, but... has anyone tested this by doing a recreation of someone who's alive now from drawings of them, to see what they get? Or am I missing the point of the whole thing? Most of the images suffer from the Madame Tussaud Effect (representations that are supposedly photorealistic but actually look nothing like their source, but no one seems to think this is much of a problem).

The emperors are rubbish. Claudius looks nothing like Derek Jacobi. Also they make it look like Tiberius reigned for two years and then there was a gap.

Still, computers, eh?
posted by Grangousier at 3:29 PM on July 29 [2 favorites]

Royalty Now's Botticelli's Venus is none other than Saoirse Ronan.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 2:47 AM on July 30

Vitellius looks like a Harkonnen.
posted by craniac at 11:20 AM on July 31

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