Hidden Secrets in Paintings (A Romantic Tale)

Sprinkled throughout the last seven centuries of human history are a plethora of renowned art pieces that have become a subject of mystery and intrigue for many passing aesthetes, mostly owing to the discovery of certain hidden entities, intentional blemishes and varying repainted layers in certain recent restorations. Naturally, every artist (whether Renaissance, Mannerist Romantic, Modern or of any other art movement for that matter) – has a personal inner voice and an intimate stylistic approach towards his/her craft, but as history is proof – different eras have varied in terms of the level of acceptance of such ‘inner voices’. I personally believe that such instances of ‘hiding something’ in one’s art pieces usually fall under two categories – the first being a situation where the artist is forced to suffocate his/her original vision to accommodate wider acceptability or norms in keeping with the times and make alterations whilst still managing to hide & incorporate a version of what he or she was trying to say into the art piece. The second instance, is where there was no external stimulus for the artist to hide anything in the piece, but he/she still chooses to do it for sheer amusement, knowing that his/her work will be a subject of discussion perhaps even centuries later. Personally, if I am ever able to refine my creative skills to some appreciable level, I would hope to fall in the latter category. But we’ll get to that in a few minutes.

Don’t worry – I am not going to go Dan Brown on you and start talking about ‘The Last Supper’ or the ‘Mona Lisa’ and the many interpretations that come attached with these two pieces – I’ll save those for a dedicated post later. For now, let’s start with something different –

Last year, I finally visited the Sistine Chapel (Vatican City) which was on my to-do list ever since I was eleven, and my guide just happened to be a huge Michelangelo fanatic. It was rather surprising to note that The Creation of Adam was not the only Michelangelo piece where the human brain was discernible on the renowned painted ceiling. There’s also The Separation of Light and Darkness, where the God’s neck perfectly showcases shades of the brain anatomy. While the former could be argued to represent God’s bequeathing of unparalleled intelligence to all of mankind, the latter didn’t make much sense to me. Naturally, my question was ‘why?’, to which the guide replied “The man was obsessed with dissecting and studying corpses, and found human anatomy rather fascinating. There’s also visible evidence of optic nerves and the spinal cord in there, if you observe God’s robes more closely – the former being similar to what Da Vinci pulled off previously.” Now, all of this was news to me, but it was fascinating to analyse the mindset of a creative mind from over five centuries ago.

Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (Sistine Chapel)
Michelangelo’s The Separation of Light and Darkness (Sistine Chapel)

Oh, and that wasn’t all when it comes to Michelangelo’s hidden shenanigans. I’m sure that enthusiasts are still discovering and deciphering new facets of his art. Just think about it – the man took four years to paint that ceiling, I can’t even fathom how many secrets it holds. For example, a representation of David and Goliath in a different part of the ceiling showcases gimel, a Hebrew letter symbolising strength in Kabbalah tradition. Some might argue that we are reading a bit too much into this, but hey – you’re the audience here, so you get to decide whether you want to take it all in or leave it at the doorstep.

David and Goliath, signifying a hidden ‘gimel’.

Now let’s move a few centuries ahead to the era dominated by a Spanish painter and sculptor who stunned the world with his neoclassical and surrealist art in the early 20th century.

Pablo Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” X-rayed.

The above picture shows an X-rayed version of “Old Guitarist” which happens to be my third-favorite Picasso piece after Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Girl with a Mandolin (I know a lot of you would place La Vie and Guernica before the Old Guitarist, but hey – everyone’s got their own list, right?) But unlike the other pieces, this one is etched into the minds of many art enthusiasts for one particular reason.

Abandonment: The subject of Pablo Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” happens to be an elderly man tilted rather meditatively over his musical instrument, or so it seems, until you start peeling the layers off. Below the renowned painting, lies an abandoned piece of work which to me personally, looks like a woman with her child (possibly breastfeeding) amidst the presence of some farm animals. Why did Picasso abandon this painting, you ask? I honestly don’t think anyone would be able to answer that, but I know this – getting a mere peek of a new, albeit orphaned piece from an artist we lost around five decades ago is something that’ll bring a genuine smile on the faces of all the ardent Picasso fanatics. And I’d like to believe that the reason for him repainting over of an already existing painting would be more interesting than him ‘running out of usable canvases’ – but that’s just me. (He probably did, who knows?)

Sometimes, the top layer of paint is a mere illusion created by the artist, hiding beneath itself a completely different picture. Now while having multiple layers on the canvas is not something unheard of when it comes to famous paintings, there are a couple of pieces falling in this category that really piqued my curiosity. The first one, happens to be the controversial L’Angelus by Jean-François Millet, which was completed somewhere during the late 1850s. 

L’Angelus by Jean-François Millet

On the oil paint canvas, two peasants during Barbizon’s potato harvest are seen supposedly reciting the catholic devotion ‘Angelus’, during what seems to be the evening 18:00 ringing of the Church bell. The church tower of Chailly-en-Bière is visible on the right side background of the painting, and so is a small potato-basket lying between the two subjects. Millet claimed that the painting was inspired by memories of his grandmother asking everyone to stop their harvesting work in the fields during the evening Angelus prayer. Over the years, a lot of people claimed that the two peasants could be a married couple or even a farmer-maidservant pair. Either way, no one could really pinpoint the reason for the evident despondent expression of the two individuals. It was decades later, when Salvador Dalí asked the Louvre experts to study Millet’s painting for any hidden layers that a stunning discovery was made – The X-ray revealed that the potato basket was indeed a repaint, and that there was something resembling the casket of an unbaptised child buried in the field in the original layer. Dalí claimed that he always saw ‘Death’ in the painting, and now he knew why. As it turns out, Millet’s memoirs apparently revealed that the painting was initially called Funeral of a child in the Field intended as a burial scene, but was modified to help it get sold. He added the church bell tower in the repaint to give the illusion that this was the Angelus prayer, but did not change the expressions of the two subjects. If he would have, perhaps Dalí would never have questioned the painting, and we would have never discovered the underlying truth of L’Angelus.

Now, while this story of the baby’s casket does have its fair share of non-believers (especially people from religious communities who continue to hold the painting and the depiction of the prayer sacred), let’s assume for a few minutes that it is indeed true. The painting was very famous during the 20th century and very high sums were paid for it, even though it’s not the crown jewel of the Musée d’Orsay at this point. What’s really interesting is that Millet felt the need to alter his original vision for the painting in order to make it more ‘acceptable’ to the people at the time. Again, one can argue that this, if true, was a stellar example of the suffocation of an artist’s original vision to meet the norms of wider acceptability at the time.

Another example, which I would like to quickly mention in a similar ‘repaint’ scenario is the dutch masterpiece, Scheveningen Sands painted in 1641 by marine painter Hendrick van Anthonissen.

View of Scheveningen Sands (Pre-restoration 1641 AD & Post-Restoration 2014 AD versions)

I don’t think this one even requires any explanation. Anthonissen’s original 379 year old peice showcased a bunch of people on the shore with no explanation as to why they were there. It was only in 2014, that we were able to understand the actual reason for the gathering – a dead whale was lying right there, hidden in in underneath layer because the marine painter was sure that displaying a dead whale in his piece would be controversial, and affect the perception of the painting from the point-of-view of the general population.

It’s a shame Mr. Anthonissen isn’t as widely recognised for his work as some of the other creative souls I listed down today – because I consider this piece to be a stroke of genius. It took us almost four centuries to understand something, and now – at least some of us are talking about it. The strokes on the repainted layer have been placed in there with such precision, that even the most perceptible art enthusiasts may be easily fooled. It was not until someone asked the question “Wait, why are these people there and what are they looking at?”, that people took a keen interest in deciphering the piece and stripped its coated layers to reveal its intimate secret.

Now let’s get back to something I mentioned at the very beginning – one of my own amateur art pieces and what I chose to wrap underneath it.

Loup caché (The Hidden Wolf): My own piece.

So I got a bit creative last week and painted my own piece, Loup caché (The Hidden Wolf) – the actual piece on the left gives you the impression of a wolf-like entity in the lower half of image, mostly because of the usage of opp-contrasting colors for those eyes which really strip the ‘animal’ from any ‘human-ness’. I asked some ten people to explain what they were able to decipher solely from the original left-side image, and most of them landed on the ‘wolf’ aspect of the eyes without much explanation for the upper part of the piece. I asked these people to now change the light setting of the picture, or simply to switch to a monochrome/noir setting and boost the contrast a bit to see if they perceive any additional information. The right-side image is exactly that, which now shows the eyes in a very human tone, but also a woman in the upper half of the image, seemingly indulging intimately with someone. It would seem that this man is furiously eyeing the woman and invading her private space, much like a ‘predator’. His intentions may be hidden – we do not know of his connection with this woman, she could be a complete stranger (making his actions seem all the more questionable and dangerous, catching her in her most intimate moments), or she could be someone he knows from his past, now with another individual. Either way, the inner predator (wolf) is hidden below the surface of the original picture, much like his intentions. If you read into it even more, do let me know – who knows, maybe you’ll end up deciphering more than the person who actually used the brush strokes in the first place.

And that right there, was the idea behind this post. Humans have a tendency to be curious and question the things around them, each with their own unique perspective. And I respect everyone’s uniqueness – some may see dragons where others may just see just a few orange brush strokes. It’s as much about using your own imagination, as it is about trying to understand someone else’s. I would really love to come back with a few more ‘Hidden Secrets in Paintings‘ posts; maybe even turn it into a series, who knows? We’ll see. Thanks for being a patient audience if you’ve reached till the end, and feel free to check out my other posts as well.

Until next time, PP out. :’)

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Angela Gaft says:

    Beautiful post !


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