Anyone who has admired centuries-old sculptures and portraits displayed in museums and galleries around the world at some point has asked one question: Who is that?

Three University of California, Riverside scholars have launched a research project to test — for the first time — the use of facial recognition software to help identify these unknown subjects of portrait art, a project that ultimately may enrich the understanding of European political, social and religious history.

Funded by an initial grant of $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the research project — “FACES: Faces, Art, and Computerized Evaluation Systems” — will apply state-of-the-art facial recognition technology used in the fight against terrorism to solve old and vexing art historical problems, said Conrad Rudolph, professor of art history and project director.

“Almost every portrait painted before the 19th century was of a person of some importance,” Rudolph explained. “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?”

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