Before the advent of photography, everybody's likeness was, effectively, 'shopped—whether intentionally (when somebody pays you a lot of money to paint a portrait, you try to make them look good) or unintentionally, as features shifted to fit the style of the person doing the painting. But two researchers think they've hit on a way to strip away the changes and show what famous people who lived before photography really looked like.
The key: 19th-century artist Gilbert Stuart, who painted the portraits of just about everybody who was anybody in America. Because Stuart was so prolific—and because a handful of his subjects were actually photographed in old age—Eric Altschuler of the New Jersey Medical School in Newark and Krista Ehinger of MIT were able to pinpoint several ways that Stuart's style reliably diverges from reality. Compensate for those quirks, and you end up with faces that are probably closer to how people like John Quincy Adams truly appeared.
Fuller cheeks and higher eyebrows, for example, tend to mark a Stuart portrait. The duo then created a computer algorithm that took an average of the portrait and the painting. They applied the method to portraits of the presidents who lived before photography, effectively subtracting Stuart's signature changes.
The technique, described online this month in Perception, revealed only subtle differences between the portraits and the retroactive "photographs," and it's tough to draw any major conclusions with so few photograph-portrait pairs to work with, say the authors. But as more examples are found, Stuart's method will become clearer, and some more major alterations he made may emerge in a refined model, says Ehinger.
To that end, Altschuler and Ehinger have set up a website and are trying to find more people whose ancestors were painted by Stuart and then later photographed. They're also trying to collect similar portrait/photo pairs for the British and European subjects of Thomas Lawrence, early 19th-century president of the U.K. Royal Academy of Arts.
Via Dave Munger
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.