05/09/2012 02:39 pm ET

UC Riverside Facial Recognition Technology To Identify Fine Art Subjects

What happens when facial recognition technology moves from studying terrorism to works of art?

With a $25,000 startup grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a trio of researchers at the University of California, Riverside will begin to investigate stories behind paintings and other works of fine art by using a type of advanced facial-recognition technology called “FACES: Faces, Art, and Computerized Evaluation Systems." This technology will allow the team to look into famous unidentified busts, portraits, and other works in order to identify the individual depicted.

Conrad Rudolph, the project director and an art history professor at UC-Riverside told UCR Today, "Almost every portrait painted before the 19th century was of a person of some importance.” He continued, “As families fell on hard times, many of these portraits were sold and the identities of these subjects were lost. The question we hope to answer is, can we restore these identities?”

Rudolph's team includes Dr. Amit Roy-Chowdhury, a specialist in electrical engineering and image analysis, and Dr. Jeanette Kohl, an art history professor at the college specializing in Italian art.

The trio will begin by testing 3D images; for example, they will compare a mask of an influential subject such as Lorenzo de’ Medici and to "an identified sculptural portrait" of de' Medici. If this proves successful, they can start comparing 3-D to 2-D images. With some luck, maybe the mystery behind the Mona Lisa's smile will be solved after all...

"Fortunately there were some very vain Renaissance popes" for the team to begin studying, Rudolph told HuffPost Arts. He mentioned tackling the great Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini's 17th century busts of cardinals and popes, as well as portraits of James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth.

The team won't begin major research until June, said Bettye Miller, a spokeswoman for UC Riverside, but a website and a museum exhibition is in the works.