An algorithm painted this portrait – and it just sold at Christie’s for US$432,500

  • Software analysed 15,000 classic paintings to understand the rules of portraiture, before creating the new image by itself
  • The French collective Obvious is behind the project, intended to democratise art with the use of artificial intelligence
PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 October, 2018, 2:27am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 October, 2018, 4:13pm

A portrait made by algorithm smashed boundaries on Thursday, selling for US$432,500 and becoming the first piece of artificial intelligence art sold at a major auction house, Christie’s said.

At first glance, “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy”, depicting a gentleman dressed in black and framed in gold, could be an impressionistic portrait from the 19th century.

Up close, the image is more intriguing. The face is fuzzy and the picture seemingly unfinished. Instead of an artist’s signature, it bears the stamp of a mathematical formula on the bottom right.

It’s the brainchild of the French collective Obvious, whose aim is to use artificial intelligence (AI) to democratise art. To make the painting, artist Pierre Fautrel first ran 15,000 classic portraits through a computer software programme.

Once the software “understood the rules of portraiture,” using a new algorithm developed by Google researcher Ian Goodfellow, it then generated a series of new images by itself, Fautrel said.

Even if the algorithm creates the image, we are the people who decided to do this, who decided to print it on canvas, sign it as a mathematical formula, put it in a gold frame
Pierre Fautrel, artist

The French collective selected 11, calling them the “Belamy family”, one of which fetched US$432,500 on Thursday at Christie’s in New York.

The price swamped pre-sale estimates of US$7,000 to US$10,000. Christie’s said that the work was snapped up by an anonymous telephone bidder after a five-way battle on the phone, online and one would-be buyer in the room.

But is it art? Fautrel, 25, insists that it is.

“Even if the algorithm creates the image,” he said “we are the people who decided to do this, who decided to print it on canvas, sign it as a mathematical formula, put it in a gold frame.”

He compared AI art to early photography of the 1850s, which he says critics savaged at the time as “not being art and which would destroy artists.”

Richard Lloyd, international head of prints and multiples at Christie’s, persuaded the collective to put the print up for sale to foster a debate about the role of artificial intelligence in art.

“I know it’s a debate that’s going on quite widely, I thought that in a way this marked a watershed – or slightly a tipping point,” he said.

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Leaving aside the art discussion, there are legal questions. Is the collective or the algorithm the artist? What are the copyright issues?

To Lloyd, this is just the start of AI art.

“This is developing incredibly fast. Only in five or 10 years we will look back on this and it will look very different,” he said.

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“Artists who are great adopters of technology, they will seize AI,” he predicted. “Artists will use it to generate images which they will then modify … It will be quite seamless.”

There is also a benefit to the client.

“It gives you privilege that only very wealthy people in previous centuries had – to commission works of art painted just for you,” Lloyd said.