The Rembrandt Code
In a photography studio nestled in the high attic of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, mathematician Dan Rockmore stands in front of Flora, rocking back and forth on his heels like a shy schoolboy. He leans close to the figure on the canvas to peer at her face. Unshackled from her heavy wood gilt frame, the beautiful Roman goddess of spring and flowers appears vulnerable. "It's like seeing actors backstage at Broadway, without their makeup, drinking beers, and smoking cigarettes," Rockmore says quietly, as if the mere vibration of his voice could send the 350-year-old painting, worth about $40 million, crashing to the floor.
350-year-old painting, worth about $40 million, crashing to the floor.
Flora is one of 25 works attributed to Rembrandt van Rijn that are now under intense scrutiny. Some of these paintings have dubious origins; experts believe that others, like Flora, are bona fide Rembrandts. She, for example, shows telltale signs of the 17th-century Dutch master: the cascading brushstrokes that create the decadent, billowing folds of her sleeve, the horizontal flow of light pouring from her flower-filled apron, the oversize hand. But these characteristics are in the eye of the beholder, and Rockmore, a professor of computer science at Dartmouth College, wants to bring digital technology to the art of authentication. Using hi-res digital cameras and software that he wrote himself, Rockmore aims to examine the brushstrokes from Flora and 24 other works to reveal Rembrandt's unique mathematical fingerprint.
"The fact that you can put everything on the computer means that everything is numbers," Rockmore says. "As soon as everything is numbers, it makes perfect sense to ask mathematical questions about what the numbers represent." If he's right - if computers can distinguish between artists more accurately than connoisseurs can - the art world is in for some high-stakes corrections. Rockmore's scientific approach will boost the value of some collections by millions of dollars - while devastating others that are tainted by imitations and fakes.
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