Possible Anne Boleyn portrait found using facial recognition software

She won the heart of King Henry VIII,
divided the church and lost her head. But
nearly 500 years after Anne Boleyn met her
death, only one uncontested portrait of her
Pictures of the beguiling queen – who is
played by a steely Claire Foy in the hit BBC
historical drama Wolf Hall – were roundly
destroyed after her death in 1536. The
concerted effort to erase her from history
was thorough, leaving only a battered lead
disc as a contemporary likeness, the Moost
Happi medal in the British Museum in
But another portrait from the late 16th
century has emerged as a likely painting of
the queen. Researchers in California used
state-of-the-art face recognition to compare
the face on the Moost Happi medal with a
number of paintings and found a close
match with the privately owned Nidd Hall
portrait, held at the Bradford Art Galleries
and Museums .
The Nidd Hall artwork shows a woman
wearing jewellery long thought to be
Boleyn’s. But scholars have been divided
on the figure’s identity. Some claim the
woman is Boleyn’s successor, Jane
Seymour, the third wife of King Henry VIII.
Amit Roy-Chowdhury, head of the video
computing group at the University of
California in Riverside, turned his
expertise in computer face-recognition to
renaissance art after he was asked for help
by an art historian, Conrad Rudolph, a
colleague at the university. “I had no idea
about what art history really was,” he said.
“My last interaction with art was probably
some time in middle school.”
Three years later, Roy-Chowdhury has
developed a program that learns to
identify faces from their anatomical
dimensions, such as the width of their
noses, and the distance between their eyes,
and more distinctive features, such as
whether they have one straight eyebrow
and one curved. After training the
computer on pictures of known people, it
can scan images of unknown characters
and churn out probabilities on their
Using computers to recognise faces in old
paintings is more challenging than picking
out faces in a crowd. Facial recognition
struggles with changes in pose,
illumination, facial expressions and
ageing. But in works of art, the computer
must contend with the quirks of the artists’
styles. Another major hurdle is that often,
precious few contemporary paintings exist
on which to train the computer.
To improve its chances of finding a match,
the program works out the best
combination of facial measurements and
discriminating features with which to look
for matches.
Speaking at the American Association for
the Advancement of Science meeting in
San Jose , Roy-Chowdhury described his
program’s attempts to identify characters
in a collection of 57 paintings. The
program found 14 matches, and was
undecided on the identity of 26 people.
The rest were not the characters Roy-
Chowdhury had programmed the computer
to look for.
The system compared the Moost Happi
medal image with four paintings from
Tudor times, and failed to find a match
with two portraits, including one from
Hever Castle in Kent and another held at
the National Portrait Gallery in London.
More intriguingly, the system found what
may be the earliest portrait of the
astronomer Galileo Galilei.
“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.”
The system failed to resolve other debates
in the world of art history though. The
17th-century Italian painter, Caravaggio,
allegedly gave one of the figures in his
altarpiece The Entombment of Christ the
features of Michelangelo. But the computer
found no matches when it compared the
figure, Nicodemus, with bronze busts and
a chalk drawing of Michelangelo.
Another Italian, the 15th-century artist
Andrea Mantegna, painted a self-portrait,
but may also have worked his image into
some of his most famous works. But
comparisons of his self-portrait with two
prominent works found no evidence he
The system struggled to shed light on the
validity of three paintings that may be of
Shakespeare after comparing them with a
sculpted bust, an engraving and a portrait
at the National Portrait Gallery.