Western University researchers measure beauty in art using ‘big data’

The connection between proportions of the human face and perceived attractiveness have long captured the attention and fascination of scientists and artists alike.

A recent study by Javier de la Rosa and Juan Luis Suárez from Western University, published in International Journal for Digital Art History, concludes that the representation of facial beauty has varied over time and that these variations can be measured and tracked throughout the history of painting.

“Data from the 20th century shows low levels of both symmetry and averageness, as well as a reduced proportion of total faces captured when compared with previous centuries which suggests the changing views of beauty after the vanguards like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí,” explains Suárez, a Digital Humanities professor at Western’s Faculty of Arts & Humanities and the Director of The Cultureplex Lab. “Today, the representation of the human does not necessarily attempt to represent the concept of beauty.”

Using game-changing ‘big data’ technology developed at The Cultureplex Lab, Suárez and de la Rosa analyzed thousands of human faces extracted from a collection of 120,000 digital images of paintings covering styles and artistic periods spanning from the 13th to the 20th century. The comprehensive study found that when measuring averageness, symmetry, and orientation, the representation of human faces has not remained constant. Further, there are substantial differences between the faces depicted between the 15th and 18th centuries when compared to those of both the 13th and 20th centuries.

The authors have also developed an app, which allows the public to determine whose faces in art history are similar to their own.

“What makes this study unique is the fact that we combine face recognition algorithms with machine learning and artificial intelligence to track the changes in the perceived beauty of human faces,” says de la Rosa. “By using technology created for photography, we have been able to take a peek into the past that had been otherwise impossible to achieve. This method opens up the doors to using art to perform population and health studies, and to better understand our cultural evolution.”

The CulturePlex Lab is funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and hosted at Western, which specializes in culturnomics and big data applied to human behaviour and cultural history.

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