Image by Jan Vašek

To an outsider looking in, the disciplines of art and science might seem like polar opposites. Art is driven by emotion and the desire to create something of beauty from instinct. On the other hand, science is fuelled by intellect and is relentlessly systematic in its approach.

However, on closer inspection, there is a clear symmetry that exists between science and art. For example, be it philosophically or empirically, both are dedicated to trying to find answers to some of life’s biggest questions. Plus, both the laboratory and the artist’s studio are environments where failure is openly accepted as part of the learning process.

Thanks to two computer scientists, however, the line between art and science is now closer than ever. That’s because Ahmed Elgammal and Babak Saleh from Rutgers University in New Jersey have created a visual algorithm that ranks historical art works according to the creativity they display. What’s more, they believe their machine can do this better than any art critic or historian alive.

Here Comes the Science Bit

Two technological advances have converged at once to make this feat possible. The first of these is the advance in the capabilities of machine vision – where a computer can classify images by the visual concepts they contain.

Ahmed Elgammal and Saleh’s machine can now easily distinguish between high level features such as how a painting looks and low-level features, such as colour. In fact, when analysing every painting, the machine can reference up to 2,559 different visual concepts.

The second major advancement is big data. Huge databases of art now exist online, which computers such as the one in question can use to hone their virtual eye. The largest of these is housed on the WikiArt website, which contains images of over 62,000 of the most important art works from throughout history.

The Virtual Network

So that their machine could choose the most creative artworks ever from the WikiArt database, Elgammal and Saleh created an algorithm that viewed the history of art as a network. This allowed their machine to compare every artwork in the database based on age and the visual concepts that they displayed.

The machine was then able to decide which artworks were the most creative by discovering when visual concepts were used for the first time. By this method, ground-breaking paintings were classified as artworks that had spawned a huge number of derivatives. While paintings that had no peers in terms of style and form were considered as truly original.

The Computer Says

As it turns out, art history is jam-packed with examples of paintings that were unlike anything that appeared before them. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci’s 1469 ‘Madonna and Child with a Pomegranate’, Goya’s 1780 ‘Christ Crucified’ and Edvard Munch’s 1893 ‘The Scream’ are three influential works that had a massive influence on paintings that were to follow.



 Above:  Although Edvard Munch exhibited creativity when he painted ‘The Scream’, his painting is one of the most imitated art works of all time. Image by Mike Licht

By looking at art in chronological order, the machine was also able to determine several spikes in creativity throughout art history. The two biggest corresponded with the High Renaissance period around the turn of the 16th century and also the late 19th and early 20th century. Therefore, the machine rated works by Michelangelo, as well Picasso and Salvador Dali highly for their creativity.



 Above: Many of Picasso’s paintings scored highly for creativity and originality. Image by Rian Castillo

Other instantly recognisable paintings the machine decided were exceptional in terms of creativity included Claude Monet’s ‘Haystacks at Chailly at Sunrise’, Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art masterpiece ‘Yellow Still Life’,  and Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’.


Above: ‘Haystacks at Chailly at Sunrise’ by Claude Monet – one of the most creative and influential paintings ever created. Image from WikiArt

 While most of the paintings listed thus far are already darlings of the art fraternity, interestingly, the machine also downgraded a number of artworks that are widely considered great. 

For example, some artworks by old masters, Ingres and Rodin, are considered by the machine to lack originality. Similarly, despite being considered as one of the 20th century’s most seminal artworks, Paul Cezanne’s ‘Garden at les Lauves’ was also ranked poorly by the machine in terms of creativity.

And the Winner Is…

Despite being a relative unknown, certainly in comparison to the more illustrious names listed, the machine deems history’s most creative artist ever to be Fernando Calhau.

Due to rights around publishing images, we are unable to show you pictures of any of his work here – however, you can check out his portfolio at the WikiArt Database. There’s no doubt that this abstract artist has created some truly unique pieces, but is he the most creative artist in history?

A Machine has proved it’s got a fantastic eye for art, but have you? The collection includes a huge range of affordable art from some of the most creative artists working today. So why not check it out to see what you think?