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The Most Accomplished Woman in Europe: Angelica Kauffmann

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In response to one of my pleas for recommendations of female artists, reader Jessy suggested Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), one of the most successful female artists of the 18th century. Since today would be Kauffmann's 267th birthday, we'll take a look at her life alongside her 1790 painting, "Venus Induces Helen to Fall in Love with Paris."

1. Truly a child prodigy, Angelica Kauffmann began demonstrating artistic skill by age 6 while studying under her father. Although her father has been described as being "of mediocre talent," his instruction and connections were good enough that Kauffmann was "summoned" to paint a portrait of the bishop of Como, Monsignor Nevroni, before she was even 12 years old.

2. Kauffmann's first marriage was to a Swedish "rogue," also described as "an adventurer who passed for a Swedish count," Count Frederick de Horn. One source says of their marriage, "Her vanity made her the victim of a cruel deception," while another alleges she was "seduced into a clandestine marriage." After the man was revealed to be an impostor, Kauffmann separated from him, extracting herself from the marriage with the help of her good friend and fellow painter Sir Joshua Reynolds.

3. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was another of Kauffmann's close friends; he once described her as "the most accomplished woman in Europe." The painter Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, in exile after the French Revolution, was also counted among Kauffmann's friends and often visited Kauffmann's studio in Rome. Kauffmann's patrons included Catherine the Great of Russia, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, George III in England, Queen Caroline of Naples, and Grand-Duke Paul and Prince Nikolay Yusupov of Russia.

4. At the "precocious" age of 23, Kauffmann was accepted into Rome's Accademia di S Luca. Just four years later, she became one of only two female founding members of the London's Royal Academy of Art. (The other was Mary Moser.) Kauffmann had also been one of the signatories on the petition to the king of England requesting the establishment of the academy.

5. After her estranged first husband's death in 1781, Kauffmann entered a "marriage of companionship" with Antonio Zucchi. Although Zucchi was also a painter, he let Kauffmann take the spotlight while he ran the household and kept all the accounts until his death in 1795.

6. When Kauffmann died in Rome in 1807, the prominent Neoclassical sculptor Antonia Canova served as the director of her funeral, which was based on Raphael's funeral. The entire Accademia di S Luca, along with fans and friends, followed her body in a procession to her tomb in San Andrea della Fratte. Two of her best paintings accompanied the procession to her burial, just as at Raphael's.

A larger version of Kauffmann's "Venus Induces Helen to Fall in Love with Paris" is available here.

Fans should check out her gallery on Art in the Picture; Frances A. Gerard's Kauffmann biography; the portraits of her at the National Portrait Gallery; and this video discussion of her portrait of Henrietta Laura Pulteney.

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]