Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

6 Paintings That Were Hiding Something

Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

On Friday morning, The Guardian reported that a centuries-old portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots was recently discovered hiding underneath a portrait of Sir John Maitland, former lord chancellor of Scotland. The Queen's image—which, for almost 450 years, had been thought to be lost—had been hanging in not-so-plain sight on the wall of a historic London home. According to the outlet, "Her portrait may have been considered dangerous, left unfinished, and then overpainted by the nervous artist, in the political turmoil after she was executed in 1587." Now the ghostly image will go on display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The story, while exciting for both art and history buffs, is not unusual.

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 enough. More often, they are revealed by restoration processes, x-rays, and careful investigation by art historians and preservation specialists. (In the case of Mary, Queen of Scots, it was an x-ray that found it.)

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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George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
This Crafty Bicycle Can Knit a Scarf in 5 Minutes
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo

Knitting can be a time-consuming, meticulous task, but it doesn’t need to be. At least not if you’re George Barratt-Jones. As The Morning News spotted, the Dutch designer recently created a human-powered automated knitting machine that can make a scarf while you wait for your train to arrive.

The Cyclo-Knitter is essentially a bicycle-powered loom. As you pedal a stationary bike, the spinning front wheel powers a knitting machine placed on top of a wooden tower. The freshly knitted fabric descends from the top of the tower as the machine works, lowering your brand-new scarf.

Cyclo Knitter by George Barratt-Jones from George Barratt-Jones on Vimeo.

“Imagine it’s the midst of winter,” Barratt-Jones, who founded an online skill-sharing platform called Kraftz, writes of the product on Imgur. “You are cold and bored waiting for your train at the station. This pedal powered machine gets you warm by moving, you are making something while you wait, and in the end, you are left with a free scarf!”

Seems like a pretty good use of your commute down-time, right?

If you're a fan of more traditional knitting methods, check out these knitting projects that can put your needles to work, no bicycle required.

[h/t The Morning News]

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THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
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.

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