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Matisse masterpiece remade

Colorizing old movies is old hat, but why would you want to colorize an old masterpiece? Researchers at Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago did exactly that to figure out the thought process behind Henri Matisse's creation of "Bathers by a River." The painting marked a turning point for his artistic career - and his color palette as well.

Don't worry, art lovers: The researchers didn't alter the painting itself.

Instead, they used black-and-white photographs of the work, taken in 1913, as a guide to map the intensity of the colors at the time. Then they reworked the colors, with the aid of art experts, to produce a digital version of the artwork. The effort revealed how Matisse moved toward Cubism as he worked on the painting between 1909 and 1916.

The results are on view in "Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917," an exhibit that is going from Chicago's Art Institute to New York's Museum of Modern Art next week.

The show's co-curator, Stephanie D'Alessandro, says 1913 marked the period "of the most radical innovation and change" for the picture, which the artist ranked as one of the most pivotal works of his career. It marked Matisse's transition from the exaggerated, colorful style he was so well known for to a more austere, abstract style.

The painting started out in 1909 as a naturalistic watercolor sketch, as shown in this New York Times interactive, but took shape in far more muted tones of gray, pink and green. In 1913, a series of black-and-white photographs documented the painting as well as the painter. But then, in the 1916 time frame, the picture shifted dramatically once more: The figures in the finished work are more angular, and they're framed with geometric panels of green, black, white and blue.

Some clues to the earlier versions of the work could be gleaned from X-ray analysis of the painting's layers - but to get a clearer idea of how Matisse was using colors back in 1913, the curators turned to Aggelos Katsaggelos and Sotirios Tsaftaris, two professors at Northwestern University who are experts in image and video processing. The professors created a computer model that mapped the colors from microscopic samples across the painting, and used the black-and-white photos to fill in the gaps.

"It was challenging to figure out where color was needed," Katsaggelos said in a Northwestern news release, "but we are all quite confident in the image's final colors." 

"We first developed an algorithm to correlate information between the final state of the painting and the black-and-white photograph," he explained. "This guided us in determining both the areas where color was needed in the photograph and the choice of color for each area, what we call color hints. Our colleagues at the Art Institute assisted us in further refining our color choices. We then developed a second algorithm that propagated each color hint throughout its area, colorizing the whole image."

The art curators were so happy with the outcome of the experiment that the professors have been asked to do something similar for a future Willem de Kooning exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

"The Matisse project is just the tip of the iceberg," Katsaggelos said. "This technology represents a new intersection of art and science that is very exciting."

More from the intersection of art and science:

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