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Portrait by AI program sells for $432,000. Sacred and Profane- A Tale of Two Pictures. Update: Beware the Hype.

Updated October 31, 2018.  First published August 22, 2018.

Screen Shot 2018-08-22 at 6.55.31 PM

Portrait of Edmond de Belamy (Detail)

Fine Art in the New Media

This blog reports on the subject of Fine Art in the New Media. The portrait above, “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” was created by an artificial intellegence program has been sold at auction for $432,000.  bbc.news ,and reported as a phenomon  by news outlets throughout the world.

The portrait below, “Ecce Homo” (“Behold the Man”), was ridiculed by news outlets  throughout the world.



“Ecce Homo” (“Behold the Man”) (Detail)

What Does This Mean?

We believe that there is a striking similarity between the two works which raises to important questions:

1). Is this difference in acceptance by the art world warranted? 

2). Is this AI portrait such a phenomenon in the art world?

The first question is answered and discussed in detail in the text below published in the original post on August 22, 2108.

The second question is answered and discussed in detail in an editorial,  “What the Art World Is Failing to Grasp about Christie’s AI Portrait Coup,” by Ahmed Elgammal published in Artsy.net on October 29, 2018, key portions which are excerpted below:

“This off-the-chart price comes as a result of a two-month media circus ahead of the auction, which started with a well-crafted article in Christie’s online magazine. The news then ricocheted around the media, with lots of unfounded claims, such as “the first portrait being generated by AI” to “’the first AI art to be sold at auction’” to “’the art made is by the machine with no human artist.’”

“These claims were refuted by Hugo Caselles-Dupré, one of the three makers of the work. In an interview with Jason Bailey at Artnome, he said: “’I’ve got to be honest with you, we have totally lost control of how the press talks about us. We are in the middle of a storm and lots of false information is released with our name on it. In fact, we are really depressed about it.’”

“The claim that the art is made by a machine, without a human artist, is, of course, not true. The creative process heavily involves the artist. The artist chooses a collection of images to feed the algorithm (pre-curation); in the case of Edmond de Belamy, this was a set of traditional art portraits. These images are fed to a generative AI algorithm that tries to imitate these inputs. Finally, the artist heavily sifts through many output images to curate a final collection (post-curation). Basically, the algorithm fails in making correct imitations of the pre-curated input, and instead generates distorted images that surprise us. If the algorithm would succeed in imitating the input data, it would not be even be interesting as art. Several artists have been exploring this process in the last three years, such as Tom White, Mario Klingemann, Anna Ridler, Robbie Barrat, and others.”


As stated by Christie’s prior to the sale, “The portrait  of Edmond de Belmy depicts a gentleman, possibly French and — to judge by his dark frock coat and plain white collar — a man of the church. The work appears unfinished: the facial features are somewhat indistinct and there are blank areas of canvas. The portrait, however, is not the product of a human mind.” Art Daily.

The AI Process

Hugo Caselles-Dupré, representative of Obvious, [Studio] described the process. “Created by an algorithm composed of two parts, The Generator and the Discriminator, the system was fed a data set of 15,000 portraits. The Generator made new images based on the set and the Discriminator reviewed all outputs until it deemed the result imperceptible whether done from a human-hand or attributed to the algorithm. The work included in the October sale is Edmond de Belamy, the ‘youngest’ documented member of the family or the ‘newest’ born creation of the algorithm.”

The Significance

The artsy editorial raises serious ethical questions,

“The auction raises unprecedented ethical questions about the attribution of AI art. In the weeks leading to the auction, the Edmond de Belamy portrait has received heavy criticism by the AI-art community for being derivative and not original. AI artist Robbie Barrat also said that the code and the dataset used to produce the work is written by him.”


“Ecce Homo” (“Behold the Man”)

“In 2012, an 83  year old woman Cecilia Giménez, amateur painter tried to restore an old fresco in her local church (Borja), but failed utterly.” The painting, called “Ecce Homo” (“Behold the Man”) was ridiculed throughout the world. 42spain.com.

The Process

“The result was a botched repair where the intricate brush strokes of Martinez {the original artist]  were replaced with a haphazard splattering of the octogenarian’s paint. Years of carefully calculated depth of expression simply washed out by copious amounts of red and brown.” telegraph.co.uk.

The Significance

“News of the pensioner’s improvised restoration started spreading like wildfire across Spain and as soon as the international press and social media platforms got hold of the story, Gimenez’s “monkey Jesus” became a global phenomenon.”

“France’s Le Monde newspaper ran the story with the title ‘HOLY SHIT – the restoration of a painting of Christ turns into a massacre’ and The Daily Telegraph with ‘Elderly woman destroys 19th-century fresco with DIY restoration’.”

“Faced with a barrage of international media attention, Spanish newspapers reported that Cecilia Gimenez suffered an anxiety attack. I couldn’t understand why everyone was talking about me,” she later told Spanish daily ABC. “All I wanted to do was save the fresco.” thelocal.es.”

Side by Side Comparison:


– Jack Dziamba

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