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ECE Prof. Johnson to work with Cornell’s Johnson Art Museum to build a tool to authenticate watermarks in Rembrandt’s prints

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Cornell Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor C. Richard Johnson, currently based at Cornell Tech and Andy Weislogel of the Johnson Art Museum at Cornell recently received a Digital Humanities Advancement Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). NEH grants are a rarity in the engineering world.  Johnson and Weislogel plan to build a tool that can help identify and authenticate watermarks in Rembrandt’s etchings. The project will create aprototype tool to enhance museum and art historical research into the printmaking practices of Rembrandt.

The innovative, collaborative project seeks to creatively merge digital, computation and art historical methodologies to significantly broaden access to crucial watermark information to unravel Rembrandt’s printing practice and learn more about the chronology of his work. The team will use a decision tree model that will allow for rapid, confident visual identification of Rembrandt watermarks by non-specialists. It will also provide a proof-of-concept for applications to other research questions requiring visual differentiation in datasets that are too large for the unaided researcher but are too small for a typical machine-learning approach.

Johnson has been working with the Johnson Museum for some time, including teaching a class in Spring 2016, ECE 4960: Watermark Identification in Rembrandt’s Etchings in conjunction with Weislogel, the Seymour R. Askin, Jr. ’47 Curator, Earlier European and American Art, at the Johnson Museum. The class familiarized students with the processes and characteristics of Rembrandt’s prints and papers, including chain and laid lines and watermarks. Students were specifically engaged in the development and expansion of a computer-assisted decision tree for classifying watermarks based on the work of the Rijksmuseum’s Erik Hinterding. Learn more and watch a video about the work done in the class at

Johnson received a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University, along with the first Ph.D. minor in Art History granted by Stanford, in 1977. Following four years as a faculty member at Virginia Tech, he joined Cornell University in 1981, where he is currently the Geoffrey S. M. Hedrick Senior Professor of Engineering and a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow.

After 30 years of research on adaptive feedback systems theory and blind equalization in communication receivers, Johnson accepted a five-year appointment as an Adjunct Research Fellow of the Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam, the Netherlands) to facilitate the interaction of art historians and conservation specialists with algorithm-building signal processors. In 2013, Johnson was appointed a Scientific Researcher of the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, the Netherlands) and Computational Art History Advisor to the RKD - Netherlands Institute for Art History (the Hague, the Netherlands).

Professor Johnson founded the Thread Count Automation Project (TCAP) in collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum in 2007; initiated the Historic Photographic Paper Classification (HPPC) challenge in cooperation with the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. He launched the Chain Line Pattern (CLiP) Matching Project with the Morgan Library & Museum in 2012, with the Rijksmuseum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art joining the project in 2013, and the Dutch University Institute for Art History joining the following year. He created the project on Watermark Identification in Rembrandt's Etchings (WIRE) in collaboration with Erik Hinterding (Rijksmuseum) and Andy Weislogel (Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art) in 2015.

At the start of 2016, Johnson took up residence at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech as the Jacobs Fellow in Computational Arts and Humanities. For an overview of Professor Johnson's research activities in computational art history read the interview in the inaugural issue in 2015 of the International Journal for Digital Art History or view the videos of his recent talks at The Frick Collection and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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