Solving the Brueghel Imbroglio: New tech to shed light on old paintings

by Gordy Slack

In her large crowded office on the fourth floor of UC Berkeley’s Doe Library, Elizabeth Honig shows a kind of old-school grace and manners that cannot be translated into Linux or modeled on a nanoscale. Her focus on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish painting may not be widely shared within the engineering field.  And yet, Honig, an Associate Professor in the History of Art Department at UC Berkeley, is employing some decidedly 21st century digital tools to help sort out a controversy surrounding Brueghel scholarship.

Honig is particularly interested, at the moment, in the paintings of Jan Brueghel. That’s Jan, not to be confused with his father Pieter, who was also a prolific and celebrated artist of the period.  Though both Brueghels were artistic and entrepreneurial innovators in their day, their inventions were of a purely analog sort.

The Wedding Feast was painted by Jan Brueghel, a leading Flemish painter in the late 1500s.

A major artist like Brueghel will typically have what is called a catalogue raisonne, a comprehensive list of works that classifies each one as either 1) by the artist, 2) possibly by the artist, or 3) definitely not by the artist. Such a list is key for both scholars and galleries. It is not an issue of forgery, really, but—in the case of masters from the era, who often ran big workshops employing dozens of painters—of distinguishing between those works made by the master himself, and those produced in his studio by artists under his direction.

Most catalogue raisonnes are written by art historians and regularly revised based on scholarly work that, for example, may call into question whether a painting signed by Rembrandt was actually painted by the Dutch master himself, or by his employees or apprentices. But in the case of Brueghel, “a single scholar has had a lock-hold over all Jan Brueghel studies for 40 years,” says Honig. “He even self-publishes his own books, which are reviewed only by himself.”

Professor Elizabeth Honig is developing the Brueghel wiki, which will assist art scholars around the world.

The problem with that, Honig says, is that the scholar does not distinguish, in his catalogue raisonne, between works Brueghel himself painted and those by colleagues or underlings. Because the literature is absent, many paintings bought and sold as Brueghel’s were not actually painted by him.

This might be good for the art market, fetching higher prices for a greater number of paintings, but it was “absolutely crippling” for Honig when she set out to write a book about Brueghel several years ago, she says. And it is a stumbling block for anyone else trying to understand Brueghel’s work and its broader influence and significance. Honig could have spent several years creating a competing catalogue raisonne on her own, but that was an expensive and career-consuming option. “I’m more of an analytic scholar,” she says. Plus, she points out, the existing four-volume Brueghel catalog costs $1,200. She did not want to produce another expensive work for art historians and libraries to buy.

“Most libraries cannot afford it,” she says. “It is an outdated model of information gathering, because it does not actually get information to people anymore. All it does is serve the art market.”

Last winter, Honig was describing all of this to a friend, who said: “It sounds like you need a wiki.”

“I had no idea what that was,” says Honig.

One year later, and with a $37,000 CITRIS seed-funding grant, Honig is now preparing to launch the Brueghel Wiki.

“It will open Brueghel studies to multiple scholars and curators who can come to the website and give their interpretations of each painting and its authorship and authenticity. I am expecting a lot of museum curators will want to become contributors,” says Honig.

In March 2012, Honig will demonstrate the wiki to an audience of Dutch and Flemish curators in Brussels and will invite them to contribute.

The wiki will decentralize the power in Brueghel studies, re-distributing it among qualified scholars around the world. But it will also centralize Brueghel resources, creating a single location where the paintings and constantly evolving opinions and commentary can all be found together. For free.

In addition to bringing together digital reproductions of Brueghel’s 600-plus existing paintings and the scholarship associated with them, it will also provide new tools enabling art historians to explore complex relationships between different paintings. In Brueghel’s workshop, it was common to reuse images many times. A figure of a woman, for example, might first turn up in one painting and then again, but flipped over and resized, in another later on. The wiki will provide tools that allow users to make transparencies of paintings and overlay them on other images, flipping and resizing them, says Honig, for comparison.


Bouquet by Jan Brueghel.

Honig is also collaborating with computer scientist Corey Toler-Franklin, a Yale Postdoctoral Fellow visiting at UC Davis, creating tools that can do statistical analysis of brushstrokes to authenticate authorship. Every artist’s brushstrokes have a characteristic density that is something like a fingerprint for their work.  On high-resolution digital reproductions of Brueghel paintings that some collections are already contributing to the site, Toler-Franklin can apply her algorithms and determine which parts of which paintings were painted by whom, says Honig.

“You will be able to make a kind of genealogy of the imagery,” says Honig, “and figure out how paintings, and parts of paintings, were interrelated through the workshop production.”

This may not sound revolutionary to those familiar with wikis and other crowd-sourcing technologies, but in the world or art history, where most research is still done in museums and printed books, it could represent a sea change.

“This could form a kind of paradigm for making the work on other artists more accessible and collaborative,” says Honig. “For almost every artist there is argument about the authenticity of different paintings. But generally, only a tiny circle of scholars are up to date on the research. Everyone else is out of the loop. All they can have access to is the most recent catalogue raisonne, and that is only if their library can afford to buy it.

“With a wiki like ours, the argument takes place in real time and the judgments can be constantly accessed as they change. That is the way it ought to be. That is what the internet is for,” Honig says.

View the project page: