AI Takes Painting to Original Size

09/01/2021
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    Museum director Taco Dibbits explains how Rembrandt’s biggest painting got bigger with the help of artificial intelligence in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. (AP/Peter Dejong)
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    This detail of the Night Watch’s left side shows where the original painting and a recreated strip meet. (AP/Peter Dejong)
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    The lines on this photo show where the painting was cut. (AP/Peter Dejong)
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    Experts from the Rijksmuseum examined the painting in minute detail. (AP/Peter Dejong)
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    Now visitors can see the Night Watch in its original size. (AP/Peter Dejong)
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In 1642, Golden Age master and Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn created one of the greatest visual pieces in art history. His Night Watch depicts a group of Amsterdam’s civil militia standing guard under the leadership of the painting’s two main characters, Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch. But sadly, the painting wouldn’t survive in its full victorious glory.

Seventy years after Rembrandt finished the masterpiece, it was moved from the militia’s clubhouse to Amsterdam’s town hall. But it was too wide for the space on the preferred wall between two doors. In order to make it fit, the painting was cropped—with a pair of scissors. It then took on the dimensions it’s held for centuries. The fate of the pieces of canvas that were trimmed away remains a mystery.

Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum experts have always known that the original painting was bigger. That’s thanks to a far smaller copy, attributed to Gerrit Lundens, that was painted at the same time. Two years ago, the museum launched a research and restoration project called “Operation Night Watch.” The team working on the project used artificial intelligence (AI) to produce a digital recreation of the full painting.

Throughout the project, the current painting was encased in a protective glass room and studied in unprecedented detail. The experts examined it all, from the base layer of canvas to the final coat of varnish. Meanwhile, researchers and restorers painstakingly pored over the work using high-tech scanners, X-rays, and digital photography. They combined the vast amount of data they generated from Lundens’ copy and the original to recreate and print new versions of the missing strips.

“We made an incredibly detailed photo of the Night Watch, and through artificial intelligence—or what they call a neural network—we taught the computer what color Rembrandt used in the Night Watch, which colors, what his brush strokes looked like,” museum director Taco (pronounced DAH-go) Dibbits says.

The painting now shares its full story again. The museum doesn’t intend to replace the original work with its recreation. Instead, it will offer a new exhibit: one that features a marriage of art and AI to showcase Rembrandt’s full talent.

Dibbits admits, “Rembrandt would have definitely done it more beautifully. But this comes very close.”

God will always be the greatest Creator. Even artists like Rembrandt cannot equal Him. But as humans who bear His image, we are called to be sub-creators—to care for this world and to make more with what He’s given us. We work in the world, move it along, help it thrive, and do as the Rijksmuseum did: preserve it and share it with others.