This Artist Used A.I. to Recreate a Velázquez Painting Lost in a Fire 300 Years Ago

Fernando Sánchez Castillo employed historical resources and image-generation technologies to reimagine “Expulsion of the Moriscos”

Expulsion of the Moriscos reimagining
Fernando Sánchez Castillo's reimagining of Velázquez's Expulsion of the Moriscos Fernando Sánchez Castillo

On Christmas Eve of 1734, a fire broke out at the Royal Alcázar of Madrid, a Spanish palace known for its extravagant architecture and bountiful art collection. Spreading quickly and uncontrollably, the catastrophic blaze raged for four days.

Over 1,000 paintings were salvaged from the fire, according to El País’ Miguel Ángel García Vega. Among them was Las Meninas (1656), the Baroque masterpiece by Diego Velázquez, considered one of the most studied works in the history of Western art. Artnet’s Verity Babbs writes that the piece was “snatched from the flames, taken from its frame and thrown out of a nearby window.” Today, it hangs in Madrid’s Prado Museum.

Other works were less fortunate. Around 500 paintings were destroyed in the fire, including another Velázquez: Expulsion of the Moriscos (1627), which depicted Philip III’s order to expel the Moriscos, Muslims who converted to Christianity, from Spain.

Now, nearly three centuries after the disaster, an artist has digitally reimagined Expulsion of the Moriscos using artificial intelligence.

Fernando Sánchez Castillo, a Madrid-based artist whose multimedia work interrogates history and power, created a four-minute video that shows a blank canvas transforming into an approximation of Velázquez’s original painting. Earlier this year, the video was displayed at Albarrán Bourdais, a gallery in Madrid, as part of Castillo’s solo exhibition, “Contra-informaciones.”

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Albarrán Bourdais (@albarran.bourdais)

To create his interpretation, Castillo started with historical resources. A detailed description of the painting, which historian and artist Antonio Palomino had written before the fire, was essential to the project. Castillo also referred to a preliminary sketch Velázquez made for Expulsion of the Moriscos, which Spanish art historian William Jordan discovered at a London auction house in 1988, according to El País. The illustration, which had been misattributed to the Flemish painter Justus Sustermans, was restored, and both Texas’ Kimbell Art Museum and the Prado Museum confirmed it was Velázquez’s sketch for Expulsion.

Armed with these materials, Castillo teamed up with Paula García, an A.I. scholar now working in video game design. They fed their documents and other Baroque paintings into Midjourney, an A.I. tool that generates images from text prompts. Writing a high-quality prompt is a vital step in the process, often requiring many attempts.

“The more precise the prompt, the better it works,” García tells El País. “If you’re vague, like saying ‘allegory of Spain’ for our painting, you’ll see Spanish flags pop up on the screen. It’s a time-consuming job that requires patience. You move forward, go back, check internet images, then move forward again.” She added that using A.I. was like “having an army of apprentices.”

Once they had the building blocks for their interpretation, they turned to the latest version of Adobe Photoshop, which includes an A.I. feature called generative filling, to finish the job. The pair tells El País that the resulting artwork is about 80 percent “artistic creation” and 20 percent A.I.

Since the technology’s invention, the role of A.I. in art has been a matter of debate. Just a few months ago, for example, a list of thousands of artists whose work may have been used to train Midjourney went viral, raising concerns about how copyright law applies to A.I. Around the same time, A.I. was used to “completeKeith Haring’s Unfinished Painting (1989), which the artist had left unfinished as a commentary on the AIDS epidemic. Critics argued the image was disrespectful to Haring’s original intent.

Others have used A.I. to reimagine artworks that have been lost or damaged, like the recreated Velázquez. In 2021, a pair of scientists recreated a Santiago Rusiñol landscape that Pablo Picasso had painted over. Later that year, researchers used an A.I. algorithm to colorize black-and-white photographs of three lost Gustav Klimt paintings.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.