6 Works of Art That Were Hiding in Plain Sight

An ancient angel mosaic on a wall of the Church of the Nativity
An ancient angel mosaic on a wall of the Church of the Nativity
THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this year, an 1820 facsimile of the Declaration of Independence turned up in Texas. Despite once being owned by James Madison, it had been shuffled among the papers of a family who eventually forgot about its provenance and came to consider it "worthless," at least until its recent authentication. As one of only 200 facsimiles created by printer William Stone, it was a rare document, but what made headlines was a curious footnote in the document’s journey: It had been hidden behind wallpaper during the Civil War as protection.

There’s something tantalizing about a precious object concealed by wallpaper or painted over; it suggests treasures might be hiding anywhere—maybe in our own homes. Here are a few stories of art that's been lost, and found, on the same wall, hidden beneath wallpaper, paint, and plaster.

1. ANGEL MOSAIC // PALESTINE

Conservators who began restoring the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2013 after centuries of neglect were prepared to clean its mosaics from years of soot and grime. They weren’t expecting to find new ones.

Using a thermographic camera, one restoration worker noticed a shape in the plaster walls. When the team started chipping off the material, they found the brilliant glow of mother-of-pearl tiles. Soon an 8-foot-tall angel was revealed, dressed in a flowing white robe, its golden wings and halo as luminescent as when they were installed in the Crusades era. It’s believed that the angel was covered up following an 1830s earthquake, perhaps to hide damage. Now the lost seraph (above) has rejoined the procession of radiant mosaic angels who are walking to the nativity along the church’s historic walls.

2. MEDIEVAL MURALS // WALES

Mediaeval wall paintings, Llancarfan church, Wales
Chris Samuel, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

During the Reformation, the murals in Catholic churches of the British Isles were often covered with plaster, turning them into more austere Protestant spaces. In covering them so entirely, this art was sometimes inadvertently protected from centuries of decay. In 2010, conservators announced an incredible find in the 800-year-old Church of St Cadoc at Llancarfan in Wales.

Church staff had long been intrigued by a thin red line of paint on the wall. After conservators began the painstaking work of removing 21 layers of limewash, a dramatic painting of St. George slaying a dragon appeared. The discoveries continued with scenes of other popular medieval motifs, such as the Seven Deadly Sins, a royal family, and "Death and the Gallant," in which a rotting corpse with a worm creeping in its rib cage leads an elegantly dressed man to his mortal end. The murals are now on view for all to enjoy.

3. BRETON GIRL SPINNING // FRANCE

Paul Gauguin, "Breton Girl Spinning"
Paul Gauguin, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Now at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, French artist Paul Gauguin's 1889 Breton Girl Spinning is an enigmatic fresco of a young girl dancing at a small tree. In one hand, she is spinning wool; in the distance, above the water and shapes of ships, a huge angel with a sword is flying. In part because of this angelic figure, the painting is sometimes called Joan of Arc.

The work was painted right on the plaster dining room wall of La Buvette de la Plage, an inn in Brittany, France. After being forgotten under layers of wallpaper, it and two other murals (one by Gauguin and one by his student Meijer de Haan) were rediscovered in 1924 during some redecorating.

4. MAYA MURALS // GUATEMALA

While updating their kitchen around 2007, Lucas Asicona Ramirez and his family in the Guatemalan village of Chajul discovered some old interior design—Maya murals, hidden for centuries beneath the plaster.

The roughly 300-year-old artworks in the colonial-era home featured figures in both Maya and Spanish attire, representing a moment of European arrival. One may be holding a human heart, or possibly a mask used in a dance. Ramirez hopes to turn the room into a museum, but needs more funding. Other households in Chajul also have historic murals in their homes, and some are striving to conserve these memories of their ancestors even while local preservation resources are limited.

5. WILLIAM MORRIS RED HOUSE MURALS // ENGLAND

The 19th century British artist and writer William Morris is celebrated for his textiles, writing, wallpaper, and other work in the Arts and Crafts movement. The house in Bexleyheath, Kent, that architect Philip Webb designed for him and his wife Jane in 1859 was intended not just as a home, but an incubator for art. The "Red House" became a hub for like-minded artists, and Morris founded “The Firm”—which produced decorative objects such as stained glass and furniture—there in 1861 alongside several other artists. However, the Red House community was short-lived, and financial difficulties forced the family to move out in 1865, never to return.

When the National Trust acquired the house in 2003, they found that the group had left behind some of their artistic experiments. Behind a wardrobe, under layers of paint and wallpaper, the trust made a most extraordinary find: a full wall of almost life-size biblical figures. Researchers believe they were collaboratively painted by Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, and Ford Madox Brown, all of whom were major artists in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

6. AMÉRICA TROPICAL // UNITED STATES

Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros had just been expelled from Mexico for his leftist activities when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1932. Local boosters commissioned him to create a mural on the theme of "Tropical America" on the touristy Olvera Street, which was an idealized vision of a Mexican market, but he had no interest in portraying some folkloric fantasy. “For me, 'America Tropical' was a land of natives, of Indians, Creoles, of African-American men, all of them invariably persecuted and harassed by their respective governments,” he said in a 1971 documentary.

His América Tropical: Oprimida y Destrozada por los Imperialismos, or Tropical America: Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism, was a moody landscape with gnarled trees clawing at a Maya temple. At the center, an indigenous man is crucified, with an American eagle ominously descending over his head. Innovative techniques such as airbrushing gave the tableau a visceral edge.

The 18-by-82-foot act of subversion was soon whitewashed. Still, many people did not forget it, especially as Siqueiros became recognized as one of the most influential of the early 1900s Mexican muralists. Eight decades after it was painted, the city of Los Angeles, along with the Getty Conservation Institute, began a restoration. The whitewash had protected its details from sun and rain and finally, in 2012, its defiant scene was again revealed to the public. It is now the oldest mural in L.A., and the only one by Siqueiros in its original location.

17 Artful Facts About Frida Kahlo

A visitor looks at "Self-Portrait as Tehuana or Diego on My Mind" at the Frida Kahlo Retrospective in Berlin in 2010
A visitor looks at "Self-Portrait as Tehuana or Diego on My Mind" at the Frida Kahlo Retrospective in Berlin in 2010
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The life and work of Frida Kahlo—one of Mexico's greatest painters—were both defined by pain and perseverance. Getting to know how Kahlo lived provides greater insight into her beloved paintings, which are rich with detail and personal iconography.

1. Frida Kahlo was born and died in the same house.

Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, in a building nicknamed “La Casa Azul” for its vivid blue exterior. There, she was raised by her mother, Matilde, and encouraged by her photographer father, Guillermo. Years later, she and her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, made it their home as well. And on July 13, 1954, Kahlo died there at age 47.

2. … and Kahlo's beloved home is now a museum.

Casa Azul is also known as The Frida Kahlo Museum. As a tribute to Kahlo, Rivera donated the house in 1958 as well as all of the artwork, created by both him and Kahlo, that it contained. Much of the interior has been preserved just the way Kahlo had it in the 1950s, making the space a popular tourist attraction that allows visitors a look at her work, life, and personal artifacts, including the urn that holds her ashes.

3. A third of Frida Kahlo's paintings were self-portraits.

Kahlo folded in symbols from her Mexican culture and allusions to her personal life in order to create a series of 55 surreal and uniquely revealing self-portraits. Of these, she famously declared, "I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best."

4. A surreal accident had a big impact on Frida Kahlo's life.

On September 17, 1925, an 18-year-old Kahlo boarded a bus with her boyfriend Alex Gómez Arias, only to be forever marred when it crossed a train's path. Recalling the tragedy, Arias described the bus as "burst(ing) into a thousand pieces," with a handrail ripping through Kahlo's torso.

He later recounted, "Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone in the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her, they cried, ‘La bailarina, la bailarina!’ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer."

5. Kahlo’s path to painting began with that collision.

The accident broke Kahlo's spinal column, collarbone, ribs, and pelvis, fractured her right leg in 11 places, and dislocated her shoulder. Those severe injuries left her racked with pain for the rest of her life, and frequently bedbound. But during these times, Kahlo picked up her father's paintbrush. Her mother helped arrange a special easel that would allow her to work from bed. Of her life's hardships, Kahlo once proclaimed, “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”

6. Frida Kahlo once dreamed of being a doctor.

As a child, Kahlo contracted polio, which withered her right leg and sparked an interest in the healing power of medicine. Unfortunately, the injuries from the train accident forced the teenager to abandon her plans to study medicine.

7. Kahlo’s poor health shaped her art.

In the course of her life, Kahlo would undergo 30 surgeries, including the eventual amputation of her foot due to a case of gangrene. She explored her frustrations with her body's frailty in paintings like The Broken Column, which centers on her shattered spine, and Without Hope, which dramatically depicted a period where her doctor prescribed force-feeding. On the back of the latter, she wrote, "Not the least hope remains to me ... Everything moves in time with what the belly contains."

8. Kahlo didn’t see herself as a surrealist.

She rejected the label, saying, "They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."

9. Kahlo’s tumultuous marriage sparked more pain and paintings.

Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera and a pet dog, Mexico City, 1940s
Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera and a pet dog, Mexico City, 1940s
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Kahlo met Rivera, she was a student and he was already a father of four and on his way to his second divorce. Despite a 20-year age difference, the pair quickly fell for each other, spurring Rivera to leave his second wife and wed Kahlo in 1929.

From there, they were each other's greatest fans and supporters when it came to their art. But their 10-year marriage was wrought with fits of temper and infidelities on both sides. They divorced in 1939, only to remarry a year later. Paintings like Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, The Two Fridas, and The Love Embrace of the Universe boldly illustrated their relationship from Kahlo's perspective.

10. Kahlo grieved privately and publicly for the children she never had.

Modern doctors believe that the bus accident had irreparably damaged Kahlo's uterus, which made pregnancies impossible to carry to term. In 1932, she painted Henry Ford Hospital, a provocative self-portrait that marks one of several devastating miscarriages she suffered.

The piece would be displayed to the world in a 1938 gallery show. But Kahlo kept private personal letters to her friend, Doctor Leo Eloesser, in which she wrote, "I had so looked forward to having a little Dieguito that I cried a lot, but it's over, there is nothing else that can be done except to bear it.'" This letter, along with others from their decades-long exchange, were released in 2007, having been hidden for almost 50 years by a patron worried about their contents.

11. Frida Kahlo once arrived to an art show in an ambulance.

In 1953, toward the end of her short life, the painter was overjoyed about her first solo exhibition in Mexico. But a hospital stay threatened her attendance. Against doctors' orders, Kahlo made an incredible entrance, pulling up in an ambulance as if in a limousine.

12. Kahlo is rumored to have had several famous lovers.

When she wasn't recovering from surgery or confined to a recuperation bed, Kahlo was full of life, relishing the chance to dance, socialize, and flirt. While American sculptor Isamu Noguchi was in Mexico City for the creation of his History as Seen from Mexico in 1936, he and Kahlo began a passionate affair that evolved into a life-long friendship.

Three years later, while visiting Paris, the bisexual painter struck up a romance with the city's "Black Pearl" entertainer Josephine Baker. And many have speculated that the artist and activist also bedded Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, while he and his wife Natalia stayed in Kahlo's family home after they were granted asylum in Mexico in 1936.

13. Frida Kahlo was fiercely proud of her heritage.

Though she'd lived in New York, San Francisco, and Paris, Kahlo was always drawn back to her hometown, Mexico City. She favored traditional Mexican garb, the long colorful skirts she was known for, and the Huipile blouses of Mexico’s matriarchal Tehuantepec society. Perhaps most telling, she told the press she was born in 1910, cutting three years off her age so she could claim the same birth year as the Mexican Revolution.

14. Frida Kahlo had several exotic pets.

Casa Azul boasts a lovely garden where Kahlo had her own animal kingdom. Along with a few Mexican hairless Xoloitzcuintli (a dog breed that dates back to the ancient Aztecs), Kahlo owned a pair of spider monkeys named Fulang Chang and Caimito de Guayabal, which can be spotted in Self Portrait with Monkeys. She also cared for an Amazon parrot called Bonito, who would perform tricks if promised a pat of butter as a reward, a fawn named Granizo, and an eagle nicknamed Gertrudis Caca Blanca (a.k.a. Gertrude White Shit).

15. She has emerged as a feminist icon.

Though in her time some dismissed this passionate painter as little more than "the wife of Master Mural Painter (Diego Rivera)," Kahlo's imaginative art drew acclaim from the likes of Pablo Picasso and film star Edward G. Robinson. After her death, the rise of feminism in the 1970s sparked a renewed interest in her work. Kahlo's reputation eclipsed Rivera's, and she grew to become one of the world's most famous painters.

Feminist theorists embrace Kahlo's deeply personal portraits for their insight into the female experience. Likewise, her refusal to be defined by others' definitions and the self-love shown in her proud capturing of her natural unibrow and mustache speak to modern feminist concerns over gender roles and body-positivity.

16. Kahlo’s personal style has become a vibrant part of her legacy.

Frida's art and its influence were not simply spawned from the paint she put to canvas. Her distinctive personal style has proved influential in the world of fashion, inspiring designers like Raffaella Curiel, Maya Hansen, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Dolce & Gabbana. (In 2019, Vans even launched a collection of shoes featuring her work.)

17. Frida Kahlo's work is record-breaking.

On May 11, 2016, at the first auction to put a major Frida work up for sale in six years, her 1939 painting Dos desnudos en el bosque (La tierra misma) sold for over $8 million—the highest auction price then paid for any work by a Latin American artist.

This list was first published in 2016 and updated in 2019.

15 Famous Birthdays to Celebrate in July

Getty Images // Chloe Effron
Getty Images // Chloe Effron

Some of our favorite figures in art, history, and pop culture were born in the month of July. We couldn't possibly name them all, but here are just a handful of lives we'll be celebrating.

1. July 1, 1961: Princess Diana

Diana, the Princess of Wales, was adored by many as she changed the way people viewed the Royal Family. Though she never found her happily-ever-after with Prince Charles (the couple divorced in 1996, just a year before her death), Diana remains an icon of strength and independence to women around the world.

2. July 4, 1971: Koko the Gorilla

Woman holding Koko the gorilla.
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

Koko, the famous research gorilla who passed away in 2018, knew more than 1000 words of modified American Sign Language and loved cats. In 1984, she was allowed to choose a pet kitten from a litter for her 12th birthday, and she selected a tailless grey-and-white cat, which she named "All Ball." ("The cat was a Manx and looked like a ball," Ron Cohn, a biologist at the Gorilla Sanctuary, told The Los Angeles Times in 1985. "Koko likes to rhyme words in sign language.") Koko also “owned” a red kitty named Lips Lipstick and a gray feline named Smoky; the two animals were companions for nearly 20 years until Smoky died of natural causes.

3. and 4. July 4, 1918: Esther Lederer and Pauline Phillips

Twin sisters Esther Lederer and Pauline Phillips (born Friedman) went on to pen the Ann Landers and Dear Abby advice columns, respectively. (Phillips wrote Dear Abby under the name Abigail Van Buren.) The competing columnists had a publicly rocky relationship, and while they reconciled briefly in the ‘60s, they were reportedly not speaking when Esther died in 2002.

5. July 6, 1907: Frida Kahlo

Painter Frida Kahlo was born and died in the same house, a building nicknamed “La Casa Azul” for its blue exterior. Kahlo was raised there, and years later, she and her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, made it their home as well. On July 13, 1954, Kahlo died there at age 47.

6. July 9, 1956: Tom Hanks


JEMAL COUNTESS/GETTY IMAGES

Tom Hanks is one of only two actors to win back-to-back Best Acting Oscars: Hanks won his first Best Actor Oscar in 1994 for his performance in Philadelphia (1993), and he followed that up with another Oscar for Forrest Gump the next year. To this day, only Spencer Tracy has won two Best Actor Oscars in a row—one in 1938 for Captains Courageous and another in 1939 for Boys Town.

7. July 11, 1889: E.B. White

E.B. White, the beloved Charlotte’s Web author, was not a fan of fan mail. In 1959, he received a piece of mail from a man named Mike, who asked what one had to do to get a book published. White politely responded with this (not very helpful) advice:

"The principal thing [an author] has to do is to write a good book. Then he has to send the manuscript to one publisher after another until he finds one who wants to publish it. I'm glad you liked 'Stuart Little' and 'Charlotte's Web' and thanks for writing."

8. July 12, 1817: Henry David Thoreau

Author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau was a total yogi. He was reportedly introduced to the practice through friend and fellow writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. One of his practices involved sitting cross-legged at the doorway of his cabin from sunrise to noon.

9. July 12, 1917: Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth was one of the best-known American artists of the 20th century. Yet his most famous painting, 1948's Christina's World, is also rather controversial. Wyeth modeled the painting's frail-looking subject after Anna Christina Olson, his neighbor in South Cushing, Maine, who suffered from a degenerative muscular disorder that prevented her from walking.

10. July 16, 1967: Will Ferrell


Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

While other SNL stars have struggled to make the leap from the small screen to Hollywood, Will Ferrell—who Lorne Michaels once described as "the glue that holds [Saturday Night Live] together"—has found even greater success in Hollywood. And not just as an actor: he has written and/or produced several of his best-known movies, including Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and Step Brothers.

11. July 18, 1918: Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is often credited as saying, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” In fact, those are the words of spiritual teacher, author, and 2020 presidential hopeful Marianne Williamson, from her 1992 book A Return to Love. It’s unclear how the misattribution began.

12. July 21, 1899: Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway is known for being a master of economizing language, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t need to edit to get there. The author actually penned 47 endings to his classic World War I novel, A Farewell to Arms.

13. July 24, 1897: Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart stands in front of an airplane in a black-and-white photo. She wears aviator goggles and a cap.
Getty Images / Staff

Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated, twin-engine Lockheed Electra made a cameo in a 1936 film called Love on the Run, starring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. It was shot eight months before the plane’s final flight over the Pacific Ocean but was only discovered on screen in 2016.

14. July 26, 1928: Stanley Kubrick

According to David Hughes, one of Stanley Kubrick's biographers, Stephen King wrote an entire draft of a screenplay for The Shining, which the director never even read. Instead, Kubrick worked with Diane Johnson on the script, though he did reportedly call King to ask: “I think stories of the supernatural are fundamentally optimistic, don’t you? If there are ghosts then that means we survive death.” When King asked Kubrick how hell might fit into that picture, he said, “I don’t believe in hell.”

15. July 28, 1866: Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter, author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was also a mushroom expert. She studied and drew fungi in staggering detail, even making an important discovery about how they reproduced by spores, completely reclassifying them as lichens. Still, when she tried to submit her findings to the Linnean Society of London in 1897, they turned her down, as women were not allowed to become members. Her gorgeous watercolors—more than 450 of them—can still be seen at the Armitt Museum in the United Kingdom today.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2016.

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