Home Art magazine How to find out the artist of a painting?

If we look at art history, we will find many stories regarding lost masterpieces and excellent works which have been forgotten by the spotlight, have been racking up dust in someone’s attic before being rediscovered, or that have simply gone into the oblivion of time. At the same time, it often happens to find ourselves driven towards a piece of work, which is not necessarily a masterpiece, and even more, it doesn’t even specify its provenance or the name of the artist.

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A glance of greatness can often be seen in many paintings, even when the viewer is not well informed about the hand that produced such beauty, but nowadays, thanks to modern technology, it becomes much easier to have access to these types of information, and to quickly find the name of the artist behind a pleasing painting. 

Besides all the famous stories that can be found if looking back into the past, it can be said that sometimes, when we find ourselves wandering around a museum, a gallery, or even a private apartment, we feel strongly engaged towards a brilliant piece of art. In that moment, our eye is attracted towards something beautiful, yet to us anonymous, and that particular fact often triggers our hunger for knowledge. This specific instantis subject to a series of mixed feelings; on one hand we feel invested by the strength of something enigmatic and dubious, such as a painting with no painter, but at the same time our need to understand drives us to research and dig into art history until the name of the artist is finally unveiled.

It goes without saying, that a good eye can spot a good painting. Therefore, a well-prepared observer already has the instruments he needs to relate a pieceof art to a specific time period, making it easier for a knowledgeable viewer to find the name of the artist who made it, compared to any random occasional visitor.

The Shazam effect

In contemporary times there is no place for discomfort, making it foregone that: to every problem, technology brings solutions. A good example of what has just been said can be given by taking a look at what “Shazam” did for music listeners; a simple yet highly technological app, which created a service, and a solution, for all of those who felt the need to know the name of the producer behind a song that they heard in a bar, a nightclub or a music festival. It becomes spontaneous, for an art world that is moving more and more into the void of the digital era, to try to satisfy its viewers’ need to know the name of the artist behind a painting, without engaging a stressful and often frustrating research, and to do so by using high quality technological services. There are apps to identify wine bottles, there is Shazam for plants, clothes and songs, and now, finally, there is a similar service for art.



Smartify, the new Shazam, for art. 


Magnus, Smartify and Google Lens: art within reach

These three examples of art-oriented apps serve themselves of image recognitiontechnology and big-data sciences, to provide the viewer with immediate responses to their questions, each of them coming with an own twist. 

For example, if we take a closer look at Magnus, developed by Magnus Resch, we will find an app that is completely user-based, and is providing quick responses for the everyday viewer who wants to find the name of the artist of a painting. The observer gains easy access to a crowdsourced database of more than 10 million images, and therefore is put in contact with galleries and art fairs that he or she usually don’t know about. 

On the other side, other apps are based on what we call “museumgoers”, hence people who are more into the art world and are keener to visit by themselves cultural spaces and galleries. Smartify, for example, also takes a more educational approach, establishing collaborations and connections with museums, to create, and upload, digital formats of their collections and exhibitions, providing them of their wall texts and information, but by doing so it occurs that it allows people to get in close contact only with those realities that are linked to the app, limiting in some way its potential. 

Google Lens, Google’s latest and most advanced image recognition technology, is instead all about getting close to the people; a mindset that makes this company in all aspects unique. What this app wants to achieve, is to give the consumer open access to information regarding artworks, design objects, local and public art, by creating partnerships with museums like the Young Museum in San Francisco, and by displaying their collections online. It is an immediate assumption that an app that is developed by Google, aims to communicate to the widest possible target, and therefore it was created for the everyday worker, who is not a habitual art affectionate, and who wants to learn during his time at the café or at the Co-Working space he is used to go. 



From left to right: Ms. Cohen scanning works by Helen Frankenthaler at the Parrish Art Museum: at left, “Provincetown Window” (1963-64); top right, “Provincetown” (1964); and bottom right, “Summer Scene: Provincetown” (1961), Credit...Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Vincent Tullo for The New York Times ; Magnus has built a database of more than 10 million images of art. Ms. Cohen uses the app on other Frankenthaler works at the Parrish, at left, “Beach Scene” (1961), and right, “Square Figure” (1961) Credit...Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Vincent Tullo for The New York Times.


Problems and barriers of art-related information technologies

When big data sciences confront themselves with a delicate and complex argument like the one of painting and artistic production, it happens to be a much more difficult challenge that it might seem. It is interesting to spend some time understanding what the problematics are, when engaging in a service of that sort. 

A starting point comes once again from Magnus Resch himself, whom once stated that “there is a lot more art than there are songs”. This statement can be taken as almost totally true, for the fact that: it might be true that the process of cataloging individual artworks based in unique locations, is harder than cataloging entire albums and discographies under a single digital “place”. But it is also true, that underground music is not driven by the same desire towards mainstream, which is instead a general necessity of most of the artistic and painterly productions, even when coming from the most hidden meanders, hence the higher amount of museums and galleries that respond to that specific need. 

Besides the most obvious problems linked to copyright infringement, which is a very thin and subtle argument in a user based online world and has already been regulated by the Digital Millenial Copyright Act, there are other problematic aspects that deserve to be analized. How can 3D objects and sculptures be loyally reproduced in an abstract and illusive dimension like the one offered by digital platforms? What happens to the viewer’s experience of the “aura”, the presence, of an artwork, when the experience is transposed online, where space and time are subject to various mutations? 

For what concerns multi-dimensional objects, it comes naturally to believe that, while nowadays image recognition technologies are still baffled by 3D artifacts, someday soon the fast-moving development of augmented reality services might be able to respond to this request, and correct the currently existing “lags”.

If we dig into the problems regarding “aura”, we will immediately understand that engaging in such a deep analysis would be frustrating and timeless, and it is therefore a problem that today has no solution. It is smart and forward looking to keep count of the positive aspects that are being achieved and accept all of the imperfections that with due time might as well be solved. 

As Magnus Resch suggested, there are some key aspects to be seen about the “transparency” that online services are able to give to the viewer, who might be searching for the artist that made a particular painting. With the term “transparency” Mr. Resch defines the amount of details regarding price and information about the provenance of the displayed work, which are often left apart by galleries and collections. The viewer usually has to ask in order to know the name of the artist, and apps like Magnus give an immediate response to that frequent question. 


Magnus, find the name of the artist of a painting, and much more!.


Conclusions: how do I find the artist of a painting?

As vastly explained througout the article, we are lucky to live into a forward moving, digital and technological society, in which big data sciences enable us to get access to bodyless and simple cataloging methods, allowing a quick and well displayed response to our need-to-know. Learning how to read a gesture, an aesthetic tendency and to recognize it into a painting who’s provenance is yet unknown, is a form of knowledge that is probably becoming more and more unnecessary, thanks to apps like Magnus, Smartify, Google Lens and others that are being developed as we speak. It can be said, to the well informed reader, that these type of technologies must be used with judgement, meaning that, although it is interesting and extremely useful to have access to these instant informations, we shall not use these apps as our only form of understanding, but instead, we should use their incredible potential by combining them with our background and research in order to develop a more complete form of knowledge. 


Two women using Magnus app during their visit at the art fair.


Cover image: A visitor snaps a picture of "Untitled 2016" by Rirkrit Tiravanija during Art Basel Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images.

Written by Mario Rodolfo Silva

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