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Reading faces

I took a facial coding expert around the National Gallery to "read" some portraits, with interesting results

By Sebastian Smee   May 2004

For most of the past two millennia, the primary purpose of portraiture was remembrance. But since the few people who could afford to commission portraits – rulers, merchants, clergy – usually had interests extending beyond the merely personal, these were also expected to be edifying and exemplary in character. Then, from around the 15th century, a more intimate ideal of portraiture gradually took hold in western art: an expectation that portraits should provide insight into the character of the sitter.

Of course, in more recent times, the idea that character can be pinned down in an image has been thrown…

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