Vincent van Gogh has been surprisingly busy for a dead man.
His paintings have featured in major museum exhibitions this year. Immersive theaters in cities like Miami and Milan bloom with projections of his swirling landscapes. His designs now appear on everything from sneakers to doormats, and a recent collaboration with the Pokémon gaming franchise was so popular that buyers stampeded at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, forcing it to suspend selling the trading cards in the gift shop.
But one of the boldest attempts at championing van Gogh’s legacy yet is at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, where a lifelike doppelgänger of the Dutch artist chats with visitors, offering insights into his own life and death (replete with machine-learning flubs).
“Bonjour Vincent,” intended to represent the painter’s humanity, was assembled by engineers using artificial intelligence to parse through some 900 letters that the artist wrote during the 1800s, as well as early biographies written about him. However the algorithm still needed some human guidance on how to answer the touchiest questions from visitors, who converse with van Gogh’s replica on a digital screen, through a microphone. The most popular one: Why did van Gogh kill himself? (The painter died in July 1890 after shooting himself in a wheat field near Auvers.)
Hundreds of visitors have asked that morbid question, museum officials said, explaining that the algorithm is constantly refining its answers, depending on how the question is phrased. A.I. developers have learned to gently steer the conversation on sensitive topics like suicide to messages of resilience.
“I would implore this: cling to life, for even in the bleakest of moments, there is always beauty and hope,” said the A.I. van Gogh during an interview.
The program has some less oblique responses. “Ah, my dear visitor, the topic of my suicide is a heavy burden to bear. In my darkest moments, I believed that ending my life was the only escape from the torment that plagued my mind,” van Gogh said in another moment, adding, “I saw no other way to find peace.”
Agnès Abastado, the museum’s head of digital development, said the discussion of developing a van Gogh algorithm took nearly a year. “One of the questions we asked ourselves was at what point this van Gogh was the real van Gogh,” she said. “It was important to show how this technology will not only be a commercial project, but a cultural one that can improve the display of knowledge.”
The initiative is integral to a larger effort by the Musée D’Orsay, a public institution supported by the French government, to assert its relevance in modern life when the bulk of its collection originates in the 19th century. And to make that leap forward, the museum has partnered with several companies that might profit from the enterprise. Some programs are connected with its current exhibition, “Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise: The Final Months,” through Feb. 4, which looks at the artist’s crucial and exhausting last months alive, when — under the care of Dr. Gachet, the homeopathic and allopathic doctor — he produced more than 74 paintings and 33 drawings before he killed himself.
A disturbing finale — but apparently not too disturbing to bring into peoples’ homes. Jumbo Mana, the tech start-up that developed the van Gogh algorithm, said it plans to release the van Gogh A.I. program on Amazon Alexa and Echo devices within the next year. The company is working on a similar project based on the life of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, another radical artist who experimented with hallucinations and the edges of consciousness.
“We are able to bring these characters to life, but we are not trying to rebirth them,” said Christophe Renaudineau, the chief executive of Jumbo Mana. “Right now, we are working with historians to ensure our van Gogh can be more accurate.”
The exhibition also includes a separate virtual reality experience, “Van Gogh’s Palette.” It is a shared production between the museum, Vive Arts, Lucid Realities and Tournez S’il Vous Plait. The Musée D’Orsay will receive a portion of the proceeds and the team is working on a longer version spanning 20 minutes that will have global distribution and display.
Many art historians were dismayed to see van Gogh become a digital ambassador for museum efforts that appeared to commodify his paintings. But some scholars admitted that they could understand the appeal.
“He was a really intense devotee of popular culture in his own time,” said Michael Lobel, the author of an upcoming book about the artist’s engagement with industrialization. “Van Gogh was thinking really closely and carefully about his own potential to make images for a wider audience.”
So the experiments with van Gogh’s paintings have continued, including their implementation in the video game world of Roblox, an online game that is popular with millions of children. His 1887 “Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat” is one of nearly 40 artworks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that can be scanned into digital clothing for avatars in Roblox.
“Wearables are such an important part of Roblox,” said Claire Lanier, a senior manager of social media at the Met, who spearheaded the project with help from a corporate sponsor, Verizon. “We wanted the artworks to feel tangible to children and their experiences.”
By scanning a van Gogh portrait through a mobile app, Replica, users access digital versions of the artist’s hat and jacket, which could be combined with elements from other museum objects, like medieval armor and an Egyptian headdress.
(For those looking for real threads, the museum recently announced a collaboration with the fashion brand Todd Snyder, bringing van Gogh’s paintings to its parkas and sweaters for hundreds of dollars.)
“For years, museums didn’t even want to put their images online,” Lanier observed. “But the pandemic really changed people’s relationships with museums in the digital world. It has offered opportunities for us.”
But those opportunities are putting some museums in uncharted territory. Although the Van Gogh Museum had a history of licensing the artist’s paintings for skateboards, scarves and trinkets, its recent partnership with Pokémon Company International went haywire when scalpers swarmed their gift shop, scooping up the special trading cards commemorating the museum’s 50th anniversary, which then sold online for hundreds of dollars. The image of Pikachu drawn in the style of the painter’s 1887 “Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat” was later pulled from sale because of the frenzy.
Now those cards are making research difficult for some van Gogh historians. “When I look up van Gogh on eBay it’s all Pokémon cards,” grumbled Wouter van der Veen, a specialist on the artist who frequently uses the auction website to scour for 19th-century papers related to the painter.
Over the last year, the scholar has been a part of several different van Gogh projects, including the A.I. experiment at Musée D’Orsay, where he offered feedback to engineers to sharpen its accuracy. Van der Veen’s influence can even be heard in the way the artist speaks French: He introduced seeming grammatical “mistakes” because it was van Gogh’s second language.
“You have the same sentence length and lack of punctuation with words falling on each other,” Van der Veen said. The errors have disturbed some French visitors, who must be assured by staff that those mistakes are intentional.
But the historian pointed out that other glitches in “Bonjour Vincent” reveal a generative portrait of the Dutch artist that is far from complete. He sometimes provides two different answers to the same question, mixing historical facts with irrelevant information.
One pronounced error was when the doppelgänger named “Starry Night” as van Gogh’s favorite artwork, saying it was “a manifestation of my agitated self and my yearning for the divine.”
The real van Gogh was much more ambivalent about the 1889 painting, according to his own letters. He originally referred to “Starry Night” as a study and told the artist Émile Bernard that it was a “setback,” adding, “once again I’m allowing myself to do stars too big.”
Though slightly embarrassed, the team working on “Bonjour Vincent” said they were confident that major inaccuracies would be ironed out before the program’s wider release, with a hope that it will improve the collection’s reach.
“When it is van Gogh, people like it,” Abastado said. “But money is not our goal as a public museum. Our goal is to make the collection speak to everyone.”