Girl with ‘AI earrings’ in Dutch museum sparks fierce artistic controversy over use of artificial intelligence

Girl with ‘AI earrings’ in Dutch museum sparks fierce artistic controversy over use of artificial intelligence

Girl with 'AI earrings' in Dutch museum sparks fierce artistic controversy over use of artificial intelligence

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At first glance, it appears to be just a modern version of Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece “The Girl with a Pearl Earring”. But look closer and things get a little weird.


First, there are two shiny earrings in the picture hanging in the Mauritshuis museum in the Dutch city of The Hague. And aren’t those freckles on her face actually…a slightly inhumane shade of red?

That’s because the work – one of many fan recreations replacing the 1665 original while on loan for a huge Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam – was made using clever artificial (AI).

Its presence sparked a fierce debate, with questions over its place in the hallowed halls of the Mauritshuis – and whether it should be classed as art.

“It’s controversial, so people are for or against it,” Mauritshuis press officer Boris de Munnick told AFP.

“People who picked it, they liked it, they knew it was AI, but we liked the creation. So we picked it, and we snagged it.”

– ‘Incredible insult’ –

Berlin-based digital designer Julian van Dieken submitted the image after Mauritshuis asked people to send in their versions of the famous painting for an installation titled ‘My Girl with a Pearl Earring’.

Van Dieken said he used the artificial intelligence tool Midjourney – which can generate complex images based on a prompt, using millions of images from the internet – and Photoshop.

The Mauritshuis then chose it as one of five out of 3,482 fan-submitted images that would be printed and physically hung in the room where “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is normally housed.

“It’s surreal to see it in a museum,” van Dieken wrote on Instagram.

The budding artists ranged in age from three to 94, depicting the “girl” in various styles ranging from a puppet to a dinosaur and a piece of fruit.

But the decision to choose an AI-generated image sparked a backlash.

One artist said on the Mauritshuis exhibition’s Instagram feed that it was “an incredible disgrace and insult”, and dozens more piled in.

A common complaint was that AI tools can infringe the copyright of other artists by using their works as the basis for artificially generated images.

Artist Eva Toorenent, from the European Guild for the Regulation of Artificial Intelligence, criticized what she called “unethical technology”.

“Without the work of human artists, this program could not generate works at all,” she said, as quoted by Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant.

– ‘What is art?’ –

“It’s such a difficult question – what is art and what isn’t?” says Munnick’s Mauritshuis.

But he insisted the museum, whose collection includes three Vermeers and nearly a dozen Rembrandts, had not deliberately set out to make an artistic statement about AI.

“Our opinion is that we think it’s a beautiful image, we think it’s a creative process,” he said. “We are not the museum to discuss whether AI belongs in an art museum.”

He did, however, admit that “up close you can see freckles are a bit scary”.

Visitors to the Mauritshuis were also divided, he added.

“Younger people tend to say, it’s artificial intelligence, which is new. Older people sometimes say we like more traditional paintings.”

The Mauritshuis were eagerly awaiting the return of the real “Girl” in April, he added. The painting’s fame has increased in recent years due to a 1999 novel by American author Tracy Chevalier and a subsequent Hollywood film.

“Well, she is beautiful in the exhibition (Rijksmuseum)… But we will be very happy when she is at home.”

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