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Portrait of Anne Boleyn believed to have been identified with facial recognition technology

A portrait of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, is thought to have been identified using facial recognition technology.

Anne Boleyn's portraits were mostly destroyed after her death

Anne Boleyn’s portraits were mostly destroyed after her death

Many portraits since Anne’s demise have claimed to be of the woman that Henry VIII created the Church of England for, in order to marry her. The truth is, however, most were destroyed after her execution in 1536 and only one portrait certainly of Anne remains.

A lead disc of the younger Boleyn sister lies in the British Museum, bearing her motto ‘The Moost Happi’ (the most happy). It leaves something to be desired for in terms of a likeness to the famous Queen, due to its poor condition. You can see the medal here.

A team of researchers at the University of California have used facial recognition technology to compare this battered likeness with that of other portraits. It seems they have found another picture of Henry’s second Queen; a close match found with a painting known as the Nidd Hall portrait, kept at the Bradford Art Galleries and Museums. This lead researchers to believe this may be another image of Anne Boleyn, who is interred in St Peter ad Vincula, the Chapel Royal at The Tower of London.

This portrait depicts a woman wearing jewellery long thought to be Anne’s, but scholars are divided on the sitter’s true identity. Some claim it is Jane Seymour, the third wife of King Henry VIII, who bore him the son Anne did not.

Amit Roy-Chowdhury, head of the video computing group at the University of California, turned his hand to using computer facial recognition after being asked for hep by art historian, Conrad Rudolph. “I had no idea about what art history really was,” he said. “My last interaction with art was probably some time in middle school.”

Roy-Chowdhury over the course of three years, developed a program that learns to identify faces from their anatomical dimensions. It includes the width of the nose, the distance between their eyes, as well as more distinctive features, such as the shape of the eyebrows, and whether they are symmetrical. They use the system for pictures of known people, and then give possibilities of unknown identities after being scanned.

The software struggles on real people, with posture and light all making it hard for the programme and art see the quirks and techniques of the artist. Another hurdle is that often, as few contemporary paintings exist on which to train the computer for assistance.

The system compared the ‘Moost Happi’ image on the lead medal with four paintings dating back to Henry VIII’s reign. It failed to find a match with two portraits, including one from Hever Castle (Anne’s family home in Kent) and another held at the National Portrait Gallery. Surprisingly, the system found what might be the earliest-known portrait of Galileo Galilei, the 16th-century astronomer.

“These portraits have some importance. They probably represent someone of social standing, or some important event, and we often want to identify who is the person in the portrait,” he said. “What the computer gives at the end is another source of evidence for the discussions that have been going on about these questions.”

photo credit: Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, French Hood Template via photopin (license)

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