On a balmy summer day in Manhattan, the founder of a web startup called Art.sy was about to experience what one might call an Alexander Graham Bell moment. The firm’s 25-year-old CEO, Carter Cleveland, was sitting on a sofa with his MacBook, scrolling through photos of fine art, when his lanky head of engineering walked in looking positively wobbly with excitement. “This is actually quite cool,” he said, landing on the sofa next to his boss. The engineer, Daniel Doubrovkine, produced a phone and pointed its camera at Cleveland’s computer screen, which at that moment showed an image from Andy Warhol’s Flowers series.
The two men leaned in close to watch. A few seconds passed. Nothing happened. “This thing is still a memory hog,” Doubrovkine muttered.
Suddenly, the phone completed what to a visiting journalist seemed like a miraculous set of connections. On its screen, the Warhol painting—that is, the phone’s rendering of the laptop’s picture of the painting—was now surrounded by tiny thumbnails of other artwork, painted or made by diverse artists and dating from multiple eras, including the present day. According to Art.sy, these works all share the same DNA, so to speak. Cleveland and a team of art historians have spent the past year studying thousands of works and compiling a list of their distinct and measurable elements. The result is the Art Genome, composed at present of more than 550 “genes”: attributes of fine art that range from the simply factual (the medium, the c...