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University of Cambridge

6 Paintings That Were Hiding Something

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University of Cambridge

Just underneath the surface of many paintings, both famous and obscure, is another hidden painting that could have been. Sometimes, these ghostly images are apparent to the naked eye if you look closely. More often, they are revealed by restoration processes, x-rays, and careful investigation by art historians and preservation specialists.

In some cases, scandal forced artists to correct controversial details; in others, the artist simply changed his or her mind. During lean times, some artists resorted to painting over less satisfactory or unfinished work because they could not afford new canvas.

Instances of painterly corrections which expose previous versions of the design are referred to as pentimenti, from the Italian “to repent,” essentially because the artist has “repented” for a choice made earlier in the creative process. A pentimento can be, for example, a change in the position of a hand, the enlargement of a tablecloth, or the reduction of the size of a hat. Small pentimenti are everywhere in paintings, and can be more common among schools of painters who had workshops and assistants. The idiosyncrasies of pentimenti have even been used to identify lost works by great painters such as Leonardo da Vinci.

Whatever the circumstances, thousands of paintings contain fascinating omissions, fixes, and shrewd substitutions.

1. The Disappearing Bust of the King of Rome in Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Portrait of Jacques Marquet de Montbreton de Norvins

This 1811-12 portrait of Napoleon’s Chief of Police in Rome by the French Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres features a shadowy trace of another face. Floating within the fabric of the lefthand curtain, the features of a completed bust of a child’s head can be seen, even with the naked eye. Art historians have also noticed something haphazard about the inclusion of the bust of Minerva on the right, which is so far out of frame that it seems like an afterthought.

Given the hasty and awkward omission of the figure on the left, it is thought to be a bust of the head of Napoleon’s son, who was dubbed the King of Rome. In 1814, Napoleon lost power, and association with him became—at the very least—unfashionable for a portrait painter. The coverup, which may not have been made by Ingres himself, is thought to be politically motivated.

2. The Hidden Woman in Pablo Picasso’s The Old Guitarist

During Pablo Picasso’s “Blue Period” (1901-1904), funds for art supplies were tight. Sometimes, when the artist was particularly strapped, he would substitute cardboard for canvas. When he had canvas, it was occasionally repurposed. One of the most well-known examples of the body of work Picasso created during this time, The Old Guitarist, turned out to have been painted over another figure.

If you have ever seen this painting in person, it is possible that you noticed what looked like another face, behind the bent neck of the guitarist. Although it is not clear who this hidden portrait is of, x-ray imaging has revealed a number of additional details. The woman is nursing a small child, and appears to be in some sort of pastoral setting as she is accompanied by a bull and a sheep.

3. The Bearded Man beneath Pablo Picasso’s The Blue Room

BBC

Picasso’s 1901 Blue Period painting The Blue Room has more than its tone in common with The Old Guitarist. Recently, infrared imaging has uncovered another portrait underneath the room scene. The bearded man, who is in formal wear and can be seen to be wearing a number of rings on his fingers, reclines pensively when the painting is vertically oriented. He probably is, as was the woman beneath The Old Guitarist, another victim of Picasso’s canvas budget.

4. The Salacious Strap in John Singer Sargent’s Madame X

The portrait of “Madame X” is a familiar fixture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and somewhat of a style icon with her simple black dress, statuesque figure, and haughty expression. However, in its time this portrait was considered an unflattering, scandalous affront to decency, and it had a disastrous effect on the European career of its creator. 

The woman in the portrait is Madame Pierre Gautreau, a New Orleans expatriate who was trying to make her mark on the European scene as a great beauty. The pallor of her skin, which is notable in the painting and prompted one contemporary critic to call her “cadaverish,” was achieved by ingesting arsenic wafers. She was known to heighten the effect by rouging her ears and deepening the color of her hair with henna.

Sargent, hoping to capture her at her most dramatic, selected her most striking black gown for her to wear. Most daringly, he painted her with one jewelled strap of her gown hanging from her shoulder.

When the portrait was first displayed in a salon exhibition, the outcry was instantaneous. Critics called the costume of the subject “flagrantly insufficient,” and Madame Pierre Gautreau’s humiliated family called for it to be taken out of the exhibition. Sargent, in a rare moment of self-doubt, took the painting and fashioned a properly placed strap on the now infamous Madame X’s shoulder.

5. The Dye Job in Woman at a Window

At the National Gallery in London, the restoration process of an early 1500s painting of a woman at a window by an unknown artist uncovered a remarkable makeover. What museum workers had originally thought to be varnish imperfections in the woman’s hair turned out to be the blonde locks of the original figure showing through a subsequently applied layer of paint. 

The blonde underneath the modest brunette is a far more interesting subject. Her gaze is more calculated, her expression more confusing, and her bodice obviously more detailed. At some point, she was painted over as a humble brunette, with a modest expression and unthreatening cleavage. Today, the painting has been restored to its original state, and the Renaissance woman can be seen clearly again at the National Gallery.

6. The Reappearing Whale in Hendrick van Anthonissen’s Beach Scene

When this seventeenth-century Dutch painting was donated to the Fitzwilliam Museum, it appeared to be a simple beach scene. However, the conservator at the Hamilton Kerr Institute in charge of restoring it before exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum thought it odd that a large crowd appeared to have congregated by the water in the distance for no discernible reason.

A little cleaning uncovered a figure, apparently standing on the horizon. More cleaning revealed that the figure was, in fact, standing atop a beached whale which had been painstakingly painted over.

The reason for this coverup is thought to be a simple matter of interior decoration. The repainting is thought to have occurred during the 18th or 19th centuries. Paintings often served a decorative function, and were as much a part of a well-appointed living room as were chairs and rugs. It is entirely possible that a whale carcass was considered an unsavory image to have in a drawing room. The dead whale is now restored to its former glory, and will decay proudly in public view for years to come.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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