Here’s My Problem With the Google Arts & Culture Face-Matching App

Kim Sajet, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, offers ideas to make it better

Google's latest app seems to think National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet has a lot in common with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Google Arts & Culture

According to a new app by #GoogleArtsandCulture, I look like Eleanor Roosevelt. Jacques Callot and a boy drawn by James McNeil Whistler were in close contention, but selfies taken with and without glasses, multiple times in different types of light, smiling or not—and trying to hide the messy background of my home office—always brought me back to Eleanor.

Truth be told, I like being Jacques more than the First Lady, because I think the light captures my face better. Also, the artist Douglas Chandor set Eleanor in a schmaltzy soft focus typical of how male society portrait artists painted une femme d’un certain âge.

Like everyone who looks at a portrait I immediately bring my own ‘baggage’ to the exchange. I don’t wish to be airbrushed because of my gender, but I wouldn’t mind looking a little younger than I am, either.

After a brief moment of existential crisis, Google’s question “Is your portrait in a museum?” has the potential to bring people closer to great works of art. After all, I was linked to amazing individuals who sat for accomplished artists housed in major museums around the world.

But is it really that effective? A quick review of social media confirms that the Twitterverse is weighing in on their art historical doppelgängers. Alas, the comments of the Twitter hive mind are rather superficial. Actor Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn), who was paired off with a rather debonair portrait of Mohammed Al Mazrouie, a crown prince in Abu Dhabi,  reported with pleasure, “Hey, this one ain’t so bad.” Meanwhile, @properly_yours grouses, “I can’t even tell you how many selfies I’ve taken with that Google art thing trying to get something that wasn’t horrendously insulting.”

Trolling through the feeds, I was disappointed that users did not seek to find out more about their partnered self—a failing, perhaps, of the app, which could have worked with the museums to provide more information about their works of art.

To be fair, when I tapped on Eleanor’s image, I learned that it was painted in 1949 by Douglas Granville Chandor, and could even take a virtual tour of the White House where it is hung. Cool! But I didn’t learn anything about who Eleanor was as a person. When I tried to find out more about Jacques Callot, held in the collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C, the app didn’t offer even a date. Or links to explore further.

That’s not entirely the fault of the app. Often, portraits hung in the galleries of major museums around the world lack accompanying labels about the people in the artworks; the only descriptions provided are of the artists who made them. This oversight has just been exacerbated by the Google app. I may be matched with Eleanor and Jacques, but who were they, really?

#EleanorRoosevelt, the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States, needs no introduction. She was the longest serving First Lady in history, she dedicated her life to fighting for human and civil rights, and she even publicly disagreed with her husband on occasion. A feisty and respected female leader, she once famously quipped: “A Woman is like a tea bag. You can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

Jacques Callot, meanwhile, was a printmaker and draughtsman from the Duchy of Lorraine, now in France, living at the turn of the 17th century. Despite coming from a family of wealth and privilege, he identified with the travails of everyday folk such as gypsies, beggars, soldiers and little people, chronicling their lives in over 1,400 etchings. Most famously, he created a series of prints titled Les Grandes Misères de la guerre that depicted the mistreatment of people during times of war, including pillaging, torture and lynchings. Published in 1633, Callot’s images have been called the first “anti-war statement” in European art.

It turns out then that both of these individuals, whose lives were separated by nearly 250 years of history, cared about the same issues: fighting the injustices of the poor, highlighting the plight of refugees, and championing the rule of law. Both, it appears, were people to admire. And so, in a strange way, the selfie-by-association turned out to make me feel less narcissistic and more grateful—grateful to be reminded that there have been people throughout history who became leaders not for what they looked like, but what they did.

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