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.

11 Facts About John James Audubon

John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

You might be familiar with the name John James Audubon from the bird conservation-focused Audubon Society—which he had nothing to do with founding—or the famous illustrations in his groundbreaking natural history collection, The Birds of America. But there are a few surprising bits of history about this quintessential American naturalist ... like the fact that, originally, he was neither American nor named Audubon.

1. John James Audubon immigrated to America to avoid serving in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army.

John James Audubon was born Jean Rabin in April 1785 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). He was an illegitimate son of a French naval officer/plantation owner, Jean Audubon, and a chambermaid named Jeanne Rabin, who died soon after he was born. In 1791, after Jean Audubon had returned to live in France, he arranged for his son and another illegitimate child to be sent there so he could formally adopt them. Jean Rabin was renamed Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon.

In 1803, his father sent 18-year-old Jean-Jacques Audubon to Pennsylvania to avoid his conscription into Napoleon’s armies. There, he anglicized his name to John James Audubon.

2. America’s leading ornithologist had a beef with John James Audubon.

Eastern screech-owls from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

In 1810, before he became a full-time artist, Audubon and his business partner Ferdinand Rozier owned a shop in Louisville, Kentucky. One day, in strolled Alexander Wilson, an eminent ornithologist who was seeking subscriptions for his magnum opus in progress, American Ornithology. (At the time it was common for authors to seek subscriptions from members of the public that would pay for the completion of the work.) As Audubon looked at the engravings, Rozier said in French, “My dear Audubon, what induces you to subscribe to this work? Your drawings are certainly far better.” Audubon ended up taking Wilson on a few hunting trips, but did not subscribe. Wilson would later write about Louisville, “Science or literature has not one friend in this place.”

While Wilson died in 1813—leaving his book unfinished—Audubon was just getting started traveling the country and illustrating birds. When he arrived in Philadelphia, the country’s intellectual capital, he got a chilly reception from Wilson’s colleagues. “[Naturalist] George Ord was so afraid that Audubon would totally bury the great, respected Alexander Wilson,” Roberta Olson, curator of drawings at the New-York Historical Society, told Mental Floss in 2017, that he “arranged for Philadelphia to basically close down [to Audubon], so he could not publish there.” The snub forced Audubon to seek his own subscribers in the UK when he decided to publish The Birds of America.

3. Another Bonaparte tried to help John James Audubon’s artistic career.

In 1824, Audubon met Napoleon’s nephew Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a respected ornithologist. Bonaparte was, ironically, working to complete Wilson’s American Ornithology and was interested in Audubon’s art. Bonaparte even bought his drawing of a great crow-blackbird (now called the boat-tailed grackle) for use in his book. But according to legend, when Bonaparte took Audubon’s drawing to be engraved, the engraver sniffed, “I think your work extraordinary for one self-taught, but we in Philadelphia are used to seeing very correct drawing.” The engraving was made nonetheless, and Bonaparte proclaimed it “a faithful representation of both sexes … drawn by that zealous observer of nature and skilful artist Mr. John J. Audubon.”

4. At first, nobody thought The Birds of America would succeed.

Green herons from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

After Audubon’s lack of success in Philadelphia, he traveled to Europe to attempt to find subscribers and printers for the hundreds of bird paintings that would become the Birds of America in book form. Audubon had the idea to print his artwork life-size on double elephant paper, measuring around 39.5 inches by 26.5 inches. Initially, the reaction to Audubon’s plan was muted. A bookseller named Mr. Bohn explained that such a giant book would never sell, since it would take up so much space on a table that it would either shame all the other books or render the table useless.

But that was before he saw the drawings. Several days later Audubon met the bookseller again and showed him his work. “Mr. Bohn was at first simply surprised, then became enthusiastic, and finally said they must be published the full size of life,” Audubon wrote. The resulting book, featuring 435 engraved and hand-colored plates, is now one of the most expensive in the world. Rare copies sell at auction for around $10 million.

5. John James Audubon sparked a controversy about vultures …

Before Audubon, vultures had been lauded for their sense of smell. The 1579 text Euphues asks, “Doth not the eagle see clearer, the vulture smell better, the mole hear lightlier?” In the 1770s, Irish novelist Oliver Goldsmith called vultures “cruel, unclean, and indolent” but admitted that “their sense of smelling, however, is amazingly great.”

But in 1826, Audubon presented an “Account of the Habits of the Turkey Buzzard … with the view of exploding the opinion generally entertained of its extraordinary power of Smelling” at the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh. Audubon described how he could sneak up very close behind a vulture and it wouldn’t fly away until he showed himself. He then ran experiments. In the first, he filled a deer skin with grass to approximate a recently deceased animal and observed a vulture attack the odorless prey. In the second, he hid a putrefying hog carcass in some grass, and no vulture found it, even though the stench prevented Audubon from getting within 30 yards of it.

Most of the Edinburgh crowd agreed with Audubon, but eccentric explorer and naturalist Charles Waterton demurred. Waterton had written of his own experiments in which turkey vultures would take away lizards and frogs “as soon as they began to stink.” But, according to zoologist Lucy Cooke, Waterton “was said to have a habit of hiding under the table at dinner parties to bite his guests’ legs like a dog, and delighted in elaborate, taxidermy-based practical jokes. A particularly inspired prank involved his fashioning an effigy of one of his (many) enemies out of a howler monkey’s buttocks.” So there’s that.

6. … and even Charles Darwin got involved.

Baltimore orioles from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

Scientists took sides in what the London Quarterly Review called “the vulture controversy.” Nosarians believed vultures used their sense of smell, and anti-nosarians believed they used sight. In South Carolina, some of Audubon’s supporters commissioned a painting of a dead sheep and placed offal 10 feet away from it outdoors. Vultures attacked the painting. Even Charles Darwin conducted experiments on whether vultures could smell.

Later research [PDF] suggested that Audubon likely mistook black vultures (Coragyps atratus), which primarily use sight, for turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), which actually use smell to locate carrion. Cooke notes that Audubon described animals that seem to occasionally hunt live animals, which indicates black vultures, not turkey vultures. Most New World vultures use sight, and only a few use smell. Back in the 19th century, Waterton had been increasingly shunned for his anti-nosarian views. “Which is a shame” Cooke writes, “because he was right.”

7. John James Audubon discovered birds that don’t exist.

Audubon is credited with discovering around 25 species and 12 subspecies, but some of his other birds were later identified as being either immature birds or sexually dimorphic specimens. Beyond these, there are five “mystery birds” that appear nowhere but in Audubon’s watercolors: the carbonated swamp warbler, Cuvier’s kinglet, Townsend’s finch (or Townsend’s bunting), small-headed flycatcher, and blue mountain warbler. The Audubon Society also includes the Bartram's vireo in the list. These unidentifiable birds were probably hybrids or known birds with aberrant colorations.

8. John James Audubon might have been the first bird bander.

Great egret from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

Soon after arriving in the U.S., Audubon attached tied some silver thread around the legs of Eastern phoebes (he called them pewee flycatchers). The birds left the area in October. When they returned the following spring, Audubon found two still sporting silver threads. His experiment is often called the first bird banding experiment in the western hemisphere.

A recent article in Archives of Natural History casts doubt on the story, though. Audubon claimed 40 percent of his tagged eastern phoebes returned home, but a larger scale study found only around 1.5 percent of banded birds returned. Audubon may have been in France at the time of the phoebes’ return, too.

9. John James Audubon illustrated a long-lost New Jersey bank note.

Generations of Audubon scholars have hunted for a mysterious bank note that Audubon allegedly illustrated in 1824. In his journals, Audubon wrote, “I drew … a small grouse to be put on a bank-note belonging to the state of New Jersey.” It’s believed that this was his first engraved bird illustration, but no one was able to find any evidence of its existence—until 2010, when historians Robert M. Peck and Eric P. Newman found the sample sheets the engraver had produced with stock images for the currency. Among the George Washingtons and bald eagles was a little heath hen. Peck told NPR, "A little scurrying grouse rushing into a bed of grass is not the kind of confident image that a bank president wants to convey,” so a bald eagle probably replaced it on the currency.

Similarly, heath hens went extinct in 1932, but some researchers have proposed bringing them back.

10. John James Audubon had nothing to do with the Audubon Society.

Jays from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

After Audubon published The Birds of America and established himself as America’s premier naturalist, he bought land and a mansion in rural upper Manhattan in New York City. Audubon died there in 1851, but his wife, Lucy, continued to live in the estate later known as Audubon Park. In 1857, businessman George Blake Grinnell and his family moved to Audubon Park, and Lucy became a teacher for his son, 7-year-old George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell later became a respected naturalist, editor-in-chief of outdoors magazine Forest and Stream, and an advocate for conservation.

In 1886, he founded the Audubon Society and the next year The Audubon Magazine, inspired by his childhood classes with Lucy, whom he remembered as a “beautiful, white-haired old lady with extraordinary poise and dignity; most kindly and patient and affectionate, but a strict disciplinarian of whom all the children stood in awe.” He also cofounded the conservation-minded Boone and Crockett Club with Theodore Roosevelt. But by 1889, the pressures of running multiple journals and societies proved too much, and the Audubon Society folded.

11. Two women, inspired by fashionable hats, revived the Audubon Society.

In 1896, Boston socialites Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and her cousin Minna B. Hall were horrified after reading an account of the plume-hunting industry—a trade that killed millions of wild birds to supply feathers for millinery. They resolved to stop their fellow fashionistas from wearing wild feathers. The two founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society and sent a letter to Forest and Stream to ask people to take a pledge “not to purchase or encourage the use of feathers of wild birds for ornamentation.” More regional Audubon Societies sprang up around the country, and in 1940 they combined to form the National Audubon Society. Today the organization focuses on science-based conservation and education to protect birds, continuing John James Audubon’s legacy into the 21st century.

When Skeleton Rocking Chairs and ‘Vampire Killing Kits’ Fooled People Into Thinking They Were Rare Historical Artifacts

A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
Glen Bowman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2012, bizarre rocking chairs—usually dark brown, with various kinds of ornate flourishes, always in the shape of a skeleton—began popping up on sites across the internet. Gothic.org and io9 ran stories about them, and Facebook pages like Steampunk Tendencies soon followed. The chairs were sometimes described as modeled on 19th-century Russian examples—and other times described as 19th-century Russian items themselves.

The grotesque chairs were funny, but got even funnier in 2013 when someone appropriated a photo from an auction house and meme-ified it. They added a blurred effect and magnified the skeleton’s anguished, open-mouthed expression, making it seem as if it were screaming into the void—perhaps upon realizing that it must spend the rest of eternity as a rocking chair in some eccentric collector’s parlor. By early 2014, someone on 4chan had associated the meme with the words “Wake Me Up Inside (Can't Wake Up)” after lyrics from the 2003 song "Bring Me to Life" by rock band Evanescence. Then, in true internet fashion, people started adding their own text.

By then, another story had attached itself to the chairs. In 2009, the Lawrence Journal-World discussed the macabre furniture item in a column titled "Ghoulish pieces attract collectors," and suggested that the chair had something to do with a Masonic ritual.

So—aside from the joy of a good meme—what’s the deal? Was this chair used in some secret society's ceremony, or is it just a strange artifact made by some long-forgotten Russian woodworker?

A Macabre Fantasy

According to James Jackson, the answer is neither. Jackson—the president and CEO of Jackson’s Auctions in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and a specialist in Russian art—sold the chair that was featured in several of the early news stories.

He says most of these chairs were probably made in the '90s, but were designed to look older to fool buyers into forking over more money. “These are the type of things that are created in various markets to appeal to the eclectic, exotic tastes of a wannabe fine art consumer,” Jackson tells Mental Floss. “So the person making this chair—and the guy buying it and reselling it—they understand this brain very well.”

The precise origins of the chairs Jackson's sold are murky. A couple of the chairs were sold to a third-party seller called a consignor, who then resold them to Jackson’s Auctions. Jackson suspects they were probably made somewhere in Europe—probably at a workshop where the primary goal is to “make a buck.” That would explain why no artist or craftsman's name is ever attached to the chairs.

These “fantasy chairs” were initially thought to be rare, and some sellers may have benefited from the myths and stories surrounding their origin. Over the years, people started to see more and more of these chairs at auction, which contributed to their diminishing value. Jackson said his auction house sold one of the chairs for $2600 in 2008, but in 2012, the price dropped to $1500. At its lowest price point, a skeleton chair sold for $900 in Detroit, according to Jackson's database of different auction houses.

Artifacts of the Hyperreal

Jackson says the skeleton chairs remind him of the vampire slayer kits that were popular in the '90s, and continued to be sold throughout the 2000s (they still pop up on eBay and other online auctions from time to time). Wooden trunks—purportedly full of vampire-repelling tools from the 1800s such as wooden stakes, garlic, a crucifix, and sometimes pistols—used to command high prices at auction. Sotheby’s even sold one for $25,000 in 2011.

“It was BS,” Jackson says of the trunks, explaining that while they may have contained old tools, the pieces were assembled later for commercial purposes and given a phony backstory. “Whenever we see anything weird like that, it’s an automatic red flag. To the consumer, though, they want it to be some rare and unusual thing—and that’s not true.”

Jackson said one obvious sign that the slaying kits were inauthentic was that "they don’t show up in any literature prior to the 1990s, [and] something like that would have been written about somewhere.” In hindsight, Jackson thinks the whole scam was pretty comical. He said you had experts on TV doing careful analyses of the paper labels inside these kits, when in reality, all they had to do was use a magnifying glass to see that the letters were printed by a dot matrix.

"It’s like doing a metallurgic study on a brand new Mercedes-Benz," he said. “I didn’t have to get a microscope out and a black light and spend an hour fondling it. It’s common sense.”

Jonathan Ferguson, a curator at the UK-based National Museum of Arms and Armour, also debunked these hunting trunks. He wrote in a blog post, “Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits.”

Still, he wrote that they were somewhat valuable as “genuine artifacts of the Gothic fiction,” and rather than being seen as fakes (since there never was a Victorian original), should be seen as "'hyperreal' or invented artifacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props."

As for the Sotheby's kit that was snatched up for $25,000, its creation was also probably inspired by the popularity of Dracula (1897) and other late 19th century vampire lore, according to Dennis Harrington, head of Sotheby's European furniture department in New York City. Harrington notes that some of the pieces inside the kit are valuable in their own right.

"[The kit] was complete and did contain individual elements that have some intrinsic value themselves, like silver bullets and an ivory figure of Christ on the Cross (though we can no longer sell ivory items today) ..." Harrington tells Mental Floss. "The curiosity value would also have helped, and of course the golden rule of auctions is that any one lot is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it on a particular day."

Likewise, the skeleton rocking chairs—despite not being antiques—certainly have their own unique appeal. “They’re cool, they’re neat. These are ‘man cave’ type things for the most part,” Jackson says. However, “They’re obviously not functional. You can’t sit in it comfortably.”

And what of the skeleton meme? Do the makers of these chairs know that their creation has been turned into an absurd internetism? Jackson, for his part, hadn’t heard anything about it. “I’m glad they made a joke out of [the chairs],” he said, “but I don’t know what meme means.”

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