Undoing the effects of pre-photography "Photoshop"


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.

Science: What did George Washington really look like?

Via Dave Munger


  1. Brilliant! I had never seen a photograph of JQA before — fantastic! I had no idea he looked like Jacobim Mugatu.

    Love the photo of Daniel Webster, too — I wish more of our leaders looked like that today! As much as the Teabaggers fetishize our Founding Fathers, it’s interesting to note that ‘Baggers tend to be beyond square in their appearance, putting on powdered wig or tricorn hat drag but not really embracing the look and making a statement. I wonder if they would modernize the representation of their heroes if they could — the way Stuart made Webster into a Jane Austenesque fop, or the way European artists turned the Mediterranean Jesus into a doughy effete whitey.

  2. I didn’t understand at all… for all I know, I’m looking at a cropped pic of a portrait. Can anybody help, please?

  3. Saggier cheeks and lower eyebrows are common changes as we age. The difference between a painting of a young man and a photograph of an old man might not be entirely explained by vanity or artist license.

  4. I guess they’re saying that it’s a work in progress… But I have trouble seeing how the current results help with likeness any more than the paintings.

    On all the ‘models’ the noses could cut glass and the mouths look tiny and puckered in. Everyone look like this:

    o o

  5. the artist is assumed to be the epitome of subjectivity”””””””””””””””””’

    The artist is assumed to be the epitome of “subjectivity” and must therefore be corrected through “objective” scientific technigue; though it may be possible that these two have engaged in a guile-less artistic endeavor without realizing it. This is another in a long history of ridiculous “scientific” attempts to re·con·noi·ter visual culture; remember that art is more precise than science.

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