‘Computational Art History’ Finds Clues in the Canvas

Rick Johnson in his office

An emeritus professor taps his engineering acumen to explore the materials used by Van Gogh, Vermeer, and more.

[This article appears in the inaugural issue of Cornellians.]

Lisa Pincus calls it “the ugly Vermeer.” Titled Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, it depicts a rosy-cheeked lady with light brown curls, wearing a yellow shawl and gazing vaguely in the direction of the viewer as she fingers the keys of the title instrument, a type of harpsichord. The painting, an oil on canvas currently held by the Leiden Collection in New York, is believed to date from the early 1670s, a few years before Johannes Vermeer’s death in 1675.

But to Pincus—a Cornell art history professor who specializes in 17th-century Dutch art—it’s arguably the weakest entry in the artist’s distinguished oeuvre. “I think it’s a really wooden depiction,” she says. “We have a pretty set idea, ‘This is what Vermeer does; this is how his paintings look.’ It doesn’t have the subtlety, the nuance, the kind of light we expect of Vermeer.”

As Pincus explains, there’s a long history of Vermeer forgeries. And for years, the authenticity of Young Woman Seated at a Virginal was in doubt, given its perceived artistic shortcomings. “I still would like to disown it,” Pincus says. “The only reason I don’t is because Rick has made it clear that it is by Vermeer.”

“Rick” is C. Richard Johnson Jr., an emeritus professor of engineering—and, at the risk of a mixed metaphor, something of a Renaissance man. Johnson, who joined the Cornell faculty in 1981, has spent decades teaching and doing research in electrical engineering, particularly in the fields of control systems and signal processing. But over the past 14 years, his interests have entailed as much art as science.

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