What’s hiding behind?

By | August 11, 2016

Oil painting medium has always been popular for its versatility and the freedom is gives artists to change, add to, or completely repaint their work. For art historians and art lovers living hundreds of years later this provides an opportunity to glimpse into the artist’s intention, perhaps revealing something about their relationships, their work, or even their psyche.

In an Early Modern art class once I was presented with an equestrian portrait of King Philip IV of Spain by Diego Velazquez (Philip IV on Horseback, ca.1635, Museo del Prado). This was a painting with ‘ghost’ images. The horse appeared to have extra back legs, and the King himself presented a faint image of his outline inches in front of his actual body. The effect is called pentimento from the Italian word pentirsi, meaning to repent or to regret. Over time (we’re talking, hundreds of years!) the lower layer of paint applied by the artist become visible due to transparency of some paints. It is, in fact, very useful knowledge for art historians researching originality of certain works, as well as providing better insight into the artist’s oeuvre.

So for some reason, Velazquez chose to move the king and his horse back just a touch. The changes can seem somewhat trivial to us today. However, being a court painter (which Velazquez fought hard to become) carried with it a lot of responsibility. Whatever the reasons behind the artist’s decision, seeing the evolution of a great work is always fascinating. Perhaps that’s why conservationists chose to leave the double image in this massive royal portrait.

There are many instances of pentimenti in early modern and modern European art. One notable example is Caravaggio’s The Lute Player, three versions of which exist. One of these is in St Petersburg (Hermitage museum, 1595-96), second in Gloucestershire (Badminton House, 1596), and the third in New York (The Met, 1596-97). Pentimenti in the X-ray images of these make for an interesting comparison of the flower pieces in the paintings. Another example is in the famous Arnolfini Portrait (1434) by Jan Van Eyck at the National Gallery in London. Infra-red reflectograms show that the faces of the couple were originally painted higher, and that the artist changed his mind about the man’s feet 3 times!

A step beyond pentimenti is repainting over a first image altogether. This is a common practice among artist unhappy with their first outcome or outgrowing their original style. (There are even workshops available to artists on how to rework old, unwanted paintings!) Some curious examples of this include The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso with a woman’s face actually visible over the man’s drooping head, Goya’s Portrait of Ramón Satué hiding a Napoleonic soldier underneath, and View of Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonisse hiding a beached whale (see here)! I have even heard of an Australian artist (can’t remember her name!) who, upon being asked to sign her unautographed work, decided to completely scratch out the old painting and ‘fix it’ right before the eyes of the astonished collector! Eccentricity has never been a quality great artists lack, and I wonder how many finished paintings hide other works behind them.


Image courtesy of the author

Most recently the media has been flooded with stories of the image found beneath Edgar Degas’s Portrait of a Woman (c.1876-80). Move your cursor (here) over her face and see an upside down image of another woman, believed to be Emma Dobigny – a well-known French model in the late 1800s whom Degas painted several times. The high definition X-ray technique used to ‘unearth’ this image took 33 hours – something that would have reportedly taken 18 months if done ten years ago! (Bless the technology!) Traditional X-rays and infra-red imagery have not been successful in revealing any details. No doubt museums around the world will be picking up this new technology to hunt for hidden treasures in their collections.

It is kind of romantic to think that the layers of paint can preserve and reveal an artist’s mysteries. A part of me is comforted, however, knowing that these artists are no longer with us. Revealing a covered up image is much like opening someone’s secret diary. But an artist’s passing grants society a kind of a permission slip to pry. Personally, I really, really want to know what’s hiding behind.

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