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.

Wish You Could ‘Shazam’ a Piece of Art? With Magnus, You Can

Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images
Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images

While museum artworks are often accompanied by tidy little placards that tell you the basics—title, artist, year, medium, dimensions, etc.—that’s not always the standard for art galleries and fairs. For people who don’t love tracking down a staff member every time they’d like to know more about a particular work, there’s Magnus, a Shazam-like app that lets you snap a photo of an artwork and will then tell you the title, artist, last price, and more.

The New York Times reports that Magnus has a primarily crowdsourced database of more than 10 million art images. Though the idea of creating Shazam for art seems fairly straightforward, the execution has been relatively complex, partially because of the sheer quantity of art in the world. As founder Magnus Resch explained to The New York Times, “There is a lot more art in the world than there are songs.”

Structural diversity in art adds another challenge to the process: it’s difficult for image recognition technology to register 3D objects like sculptures, however famous they may be. Resch also has to dodge copyright violations; he maintains that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act applies to his app, since the photos are taken and shared by users, but he still has had to remove some content. All things considered, Magnus’s approximate match rate of 70 percent is pretty impressive.

Since the process of buying and selling art often includes negotiation and prices can fluctuate drastically, Magnus gives potential purchasers the background information they need to at least decide whether they’re interested in pursuing a particular piece. Just like browsing around a boutique where prices aren’t included on the items, a lack of transparency can be a deterrent for new customers.

Such was the case for Jelena Cohen, a Colgate-Palmolive brand manager who bought her first photograph with the help of Magnus. “I used to go to these art fairs, and I felt embarrassed or shy, because nothing’s listed,” she told The New York Times. “I loved that the app could scan a piece and give you the exact history of it, when it was last sold, and the price it was sold for. That helped me negotiate.” Through Magnus, you can also keep track of artworks you’ve scanned in your digital collection, search for artworks by artist, and share images to social media.

One thing Magnus can’t do, however, is tell you whether an artwork is authentic or not. The truth is that sometimes even art experts have trouble doing that, as evidenced by the long history of notorious art forgeries.

[h/t The New York Times]

'The Far Side' May Be Making a Comeback Online

tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus
tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus

For the first time ever, it’s looking increasingly likely that cartoonist Gary Larson’s "The Far Side" will be available in a medium other than book collections or page-a-day calendars. A (slightly ambiguous) announcement on the official "Far Side" website promises that “a new online era” for the strip is coming soon.

From 1980 to 1995, "The Far Side" presented a wonderfully irreverent universe in which hunters had much to fear from armed and verbose deer, cows possessed a rich internal life, scientific experiments often went awry, and irony became a central conceit. In one of the more famous strips frequently pasted to refrigerator doors, a small child could be seen pushing on a door marked “pull.” Above him was a sign marking the building as a school for the gifted. In another strip, a woman is depicted looking nervously around a forest while cradling a vacuum cleaner. The caption: “The woods were dark and foreboding, and Alice sensed that sinister eyes were watching her every step. Worst of all, she knew that Nature abhorred a vacuum.”

Unlike most of his contemporaries, like Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County") and Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Larson has resisted reproduction of his work online. He famously circulated a letter to "Far Side" fan sites asking them to stop posting the single-panel strips, writing that the idea of his work being found on random websites was bothersome. “These cartoons are my ‘children,’ of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me,” he wrote.

Many obliged Larson, though the strip could still be found here and there. That he’s seemingly embracing a new method of distribution is good news for fans, but there’s no concrete evidence the now-retired cartoonist will be following in Breathed’s footsteps and producing new strips. ("Bloom County" returned as a Facebook comic in 2015.) The only indication of Larson’s active involvement is a new piece of art on the site’s landing page depicting some familiar "Far Side" characters being unthawed in a block of ice.

Larson’s comments on a return are few and far between. In 1998, he told The New York Times that going back to a strip was unlikely. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Never say never, but there’s a sense of ‘been there, done that.’” In that same profile, it was noted that 33 million "Far Side" books had been sold.

[h/t A.V. Club]

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