Few pictures of composer Frédéric Chopin exist. In fact, there are only two official photographs of him, and in one of them — like us every yearbook photo day — he was ill and not exactly looking his best. But that's no match for a contemporary digital artist and 3D-modelling software ZBrush. Thanks to an artist named Hadi Karimi we can now admire Chopin's regal profile (which really belongs on the back of a coin), or peer at him straight on, or from any of 360 degrees, in fact.
Karimi used the two photographs — a daguerreotype and a horribly deteriorated reproduction — along with a historic curiosity that's fallen out of favor in the 170 years since Chopin shuffled off this mortal coil: The "death mask," a cast of a recently deceased person's face. Though, as Karimi explains, death masks aren't great for making accurate likenesses, because after death, "all the muscles lose their tension" which can often leave the face disfigured. Karimi's beautiful, painterly digital reconstructions have no such failing.
Art mimicking reality... unlike real art — Aside from the pair of photographic images, the only images of Chopin that have survived him are painted portraits, but as Karimi points out, those are problematic in their own way. Like a picture of a professional Instagrammer clenching their core, sticking out their chin, and tilting their head, painted portraits tend to be "more flattering than realistic."
Despite the intricate lighting, rosy lips, and sartorial splendor of Karimi's Chopin portraits, in them, the Polish composer best-known for his works for solo piano nonetheless looks incredibly realist. As a Romantic musician, that would either make him grimace or beam. But unless Karimi continues his project, we'll never know what either of those looks like.
Tools of the trade — Aside from the ZBrush sculpting, Karimi used Substance Painter for color texture, Xgen core for the hair, and rendered the whole project in Maya. If that means nothing to you, you're probably not a 3D artist or a game developer. The only other classic composer to get the Karimi treatment so far is Franz Schubert, but another 19th-century icon features in the artist's portfolio in the form of Freidrich Nietzsche, and more contemporary composers like David Bowie and Kurt Cobain make appearances, too. Given Karini's last two subjects have been classical composers, we have high hopes we'll see more of them. If he's taking requests we'd love a Bruckner or a Liszt.
So, with all of this computing wizardry at hand can we definitively say this is what Chopin looked like? Not quite. "I did my best to breathe life into it," Karimi says, but concedes he doesn't "know how close this is to what the man actually looked like!" It's definitely more flattering than the plaster cast of his deceased face, though, and we imagine even if these digital renditions err a little more on the side of flattery than accuracy, Chopin wouldn't mind. We certainly wouldn't if we were him.