EDUCATION

Seeing through masterpieces: Cornell computer professor unlocks mysteries of paintings, prints

  • A Rembrandt etching titled, Self Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill, ca. 1639, etched by famed Dutch artist, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606–1669), at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY, Thursday, October 2, 2014.  Prof. Richard Johnson, a Cornell University computer engineering professor, has developed a way to date and authenticate the centuries-old works by analyzing X-ray images of the art. Top museums in New York City and Europe have relied on his algorithm, which analyzes thread densities and average thread counts in canvas and paper.  (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)

    A Rembrandt etching titled, Self Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill, ca. 1639, etched by famed Dutch artist, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606–1669), at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY, Thursday, October 2, 2014. Prof. Richard Johnson, a Cornell University computer engineering professor, has developed a way to date and authenticate the centuries-old works by analyzing X-ray images of the art. Top museums in New York City and Europe have relied on his algorithm, which analyzes thread densities and average thread counts in canvas and paper. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)  (The Associated Press)

  • Notes from a previous dealer or collector are seen on the back of the Rembrandt etching,The Small Lion Hunt (with Two Lions), ca. 1641, at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY, Thursday, October 2, 2014. Prof. Richard Johnson, a Cornell University computer engineering professor, has developed a way to date and authenticate the centuries-old works by analyzing X-ray images of the art. Top museums in New York City and Europe have relied on his algorithm, which analyzes thread densities and average thread counts in canvas and paper.  (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)

    Notes from a previous dealer or collector are seen on the back of the Rembrandt etching,The Small Lion Hunt (with Two Lions), ca. 1641, at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY, Thursday, October 2, 2014. Prof. Richard Johnson, a Cornell University computer engineering professor, has developed a way to date and authenticate the centuries-old works by analyzing X-ray images of the art. Top museums in New York City and Europe have relied on his algorithm, which analyzes thread densities and average thread counts in canvas and paper. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)  (The Associated Press)

  • The signature of famed Dutch artist, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606–1669), is seen on the upper left corner of the etching, Self Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill, ca.1639, at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014.  Prof. Richard Johnson, a Cornell University computer engineering professor, has developed a way to date and authenticate the centuries-old works by analyzing X-ray images of the art. Top museums in New York City and Europe have relied on his algorithm, which analyzes thread densities and average thread counts in canvas and paper.  (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)

    The signature of famed Dutch artist, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606–1669), is seen on the upper left corner of the etching, Self Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill, ca.1639, at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. Prof. Richard Johnson, a Cornell University computer engineering professor, has developed a way to date and authenticate the centuries-old works by analyzing X-ray images of the art. Top museums in New York City and Europe have relied on his algorithm, which analyzes thread densities and average thread counts in canvas and paper. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)  (The Associated Press)

Richard Johnson can see right through the masterpieces of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

The Cornell University electrical and computer engineering professor is a digital art detective, able to unlock the mysteries of a work's age and authenticity by analyzing its underlying canvas or paper.

Using high-resolution X-ray images, the 64-year-old academic can actually determine if paintings came from the same bolt of hand-loomed canvas, each of which has a varying thread density pattern that can be as unique as a fingerprint. Linking multiple pieces of canvas to the same bolt can shore up arguments for authenticity and even put works in chronological order.

It's a valuable service to world-class museums that comes through the unlikely cross-pollinating of traditional art history and contemporary computer science.