AI Historical figures

Seeing the faces of history – AI Reconstruction of Historical Figures

The Evolution of Historical Portraiture

In contrast to the past, where access to images of leaders was limited to basic renderings on coins and formal portraits in public spaces, the modern era offers the luxury of seeing leaders as they truly are, thanks to constant photography and filming. 

Portraiture from historical periods often depicted figures in a two-dimensional and serious manner, emphasizing their status and power rather than their humanity. However, with the rise of AI and photography apps, these portraits can now be transformed into more lifelike images resembling photographs. These tools enhance features, soften faces, and brighten eyes, even allowing historical figures to be placed in contemporary settings.

Recently, many projects have emerged that help obtain realistic images of historical figures using AI. For example, Henry VIII's 1537 portrait can quickly transform into a modern-day gentleman leisurely strolling down a city street, a process that takes seconds.

This is an example of the most basic type of reconstruction that can be done. The apps can generate the image once it is given some directions, in this case, “Show Henry VIII as a modern man in a three-piece suit.” 

Some applications can generate more realistic images. These are more compelling because they transform the portrait into something akin to a photograph, showcasing the person’s humanity and possibly personality. 

In creating a modern interpretation of Henry's sixth wife, Katherine Parr, her face was quickly traced, offering a range of options including different hairstyles and outfits. This flexibility allowed the user to select the style that best suited their vision of a modern Katherine Parr.

Advanced AI Transformations of Historical Figures

Playing with AI reconstruction apps can be enjoyable for amateur historians, but is it possible to responsibly recreate a historical figure by putting their photo into an app and letting it generate their image? AI could be a wonderful tool for historians, especially in their quest to generate interest in historical figures and make them "come alive." Recently, AI was used to generate images of people involved in the Peasant's Revolt of 1381, based on records provided by the People of 1381 project.d These images were based on records provided by the People of 1381 project. The artistic renderings added a personal touch to the stories of these historical figures. Faces are more impactful than just written descriptions on a page.

To be a responsible user of AI in the historical field requires time, skill, and research. It is far more intricate than casual app usage. Becca Saladin Segovia from Royalty Now combines AI programs, historical research, and artistic impressions to reconstruct historical figures. Beginning with an AI rendering from a portrait using the application Midjourney, Segovia refines the image, incorporating historical context such as clothing and hairstyles. AI often generates the idealized, best-looking versions of people, necessitating the addition of imperfections like freckles for authenticity. Realistic skin tones and deeper eye detail enhance the final result. Segovia researches and compares different portraits to create a portrait that is as realistic as possible. 

An example of Segovia's work is her portrait of Anne of Cleves, primarily created through composite photography, combining multiple images to produce a new representation.

This reconstruction of Richard III, a portrait by Segovia, is a prime example of the transformative power of AI in art. The AI reproduction has not only produced more realistic facial features, richer textures, and vibrant colors than the original portrait but also added a new dimension to the historical figure. While remaining faithful to the original artist's depiction, the AI-enhanced portrait has the potential to alter the way modern audiences perceive Richard. This nuanced portrayal could make him more relatable and appealing, bridging the gap between the past and the present.

When Segovia places historical figures in modern settings, she meticulously selects their attire and surroundings based on thorough research. For example, she portrays Empress Sisi as a wealthy woman on a yacht, reflecting Sisi's love for the ocean and free-spirited nature. Similarly, King Louis XIV is depicted on a private jet enjoying champagne, reflecting his immense wealth and lavish lifestyle. 

AI also proves invaluable in creating images from non-traditional sources like coins. For instance, the 1534 "Most Happy" medal is the sole confirmed contemporary portrait of Anne Boleyn, offering limited detail and no color. It has recently been reconstructed and made clearer by artist Lucy Churchill. Using the application Imagine Art, Churchill’s version of the engraving can be transformed by AI into a realistic-looking woman. 

Balancing the Benefits and Limitations of AI Reconstruction

While AI reconstruction offers numerous benefits for depicting historical figures, drawbacks exist. The primary concern arises from the fact that the source material, typically portraits, is already an interpretation influenced by the biases and artistic styles of the original artist. Portraits often convey subtle messages about the sitter that have been lost to the modern viewer. Consequently, these portraits as source material do not provide a true depiction but rather an artist's impression, impacting the accuracy of AI-generated images. Additionally, the person creating the AI image may impart their own biases onto the reconstruction. 

Despite these limitations, the advantages of AI reconstruction are significant. AI imaging opens vast opportunities for historical research. Realistic depictions of historical figures foster empathy and connection, as people are naturally drawn to those who resemble themselves. Furthermore, modernizing these figures through AI can engage younger generations and stimulate interest in historical research. While caution is warranted, the benefits of AI reconstruction outweigh the drawbacks, offering insights into the past.

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