Magic Eye

Professor Rick Johnson taps his engineering acumen—and a longtime passion for Dutch art—to explore the materials used by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and more.

Rick Johnson sitting in his office
ART & SCIENCE: Rick Johnson in his Rhodes Hall office, where the décor includes framed posters of Van Gogh’s classic painting Bedroom in Arles as seen via different types of imaging techniques. 
Photo by Robert Barker.

Lisa Pincus calls it “the ugly Vermeer.” Entitled 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 seventeenth-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. (Most notably: during the German occupation of the Netherlands, Nazi leader Hermann Göring was fooled into buying a fake painted by a skilled Dutch forger, who was hailed as a folk hero after the ruse became public.) 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 engineering professor on the Hill—and, at the risk of a mixed metaphor, something of a Renaissance man. At Cornell since 1981, Johnson has spent decades teaching and doing research in electrical engineering, particularly in the fields of control systems and signal processing. But over the past twelve years, his interests have entailed as much art as science. A pioneer in the field of computational art history, Johnson leverages both his engineering acumen and his abiding passion for art to study the physical materials with which works are made. “Rick is fabulous—omnivorous, open, enthusiastic, and caring,” says Pincus. “He has boundless energy, curiosity, generosity, and a brilliant mind. He can come up with more ideas in five minutes than I can in five months.”

Read the full story in the Cornell Alumni Magazine. Written by Beth Saulnier. Photos by Robert Barker.

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