The Secrets Hidden Within Paintings

Culture Music and Art

Image description: the restored portrait of George Oakley Aldrich

Finding myself with some spare time – for once – last weekend, having exhausted the scores of titles on Netflix, I decided to browse BBC iPlayer (tragic!) for some inspiration. Amongst the more niche offerings of BBC Four, I stumbled upon a programme hosted by Bendor Grosvenor – the acclaimed hunter-outer of ‘sleepers’ (misattributed masterpieces). ‘Britain’s Lost Masterpieces’, now in its fourth series, offers a fascinating insight into the investigative practises which underpin the glamour of world-class galleries and the familiarity of famous sitters. 

Most exciting was the fact that the new series’ debut episode delved into the archives of the Bodleian library: having examined their picture archives, Grosvenor selected a painting which he believed to be a forgotten work by Pompeo Batoni, an artist renowned for his understanding of and attention to technical detail, as well as his ability to capture quite remarkably the character of his sitters (many of whom were young aristocratic men exploring Rome as part of their Grand Tour following University). 

Before restoration was carried out, the painting was visibly of a high quality, although marred by discoloured layers of old varnish and a hint of Victorian overpaint (paint which has been added at a later date during conservation). After expert treatment, the canvas revealed a dazzlingly bright image – however, the removal of overpaint revealed that the sitter (George Oakley Aldrich) had been depicted with detailed scarring around his lips – that of a burn. So unusual was it to see scars depicted in such a way during the period, the burn marks were later disguised by overpaint out of Victorian ‘modesty’. 

Many people take the art world to be resolute and unfailingly knowledgable – and, with the works of a select number of master painters, this is certainly true. However, the reality is that new discoveries are made more regularly than one might imagine: be that re-discovering lost works, determining the painter of a previously unattributed work or even exposing the misattribution of a long-accepted ‘official’ painting. Only in 2012, Philip Mould – a renowned art dealer (who previously employed Grosvenor) – purchased a painting from Christie’s depicting Queen Henrietta Maria, ‘after Van Dyck’. However, recognising similar shapes and colours from a known lost original, x-ray scans revealed a smaller, over-painted original head study by Van Dyck – which was subsequently revealed through painstaking restoration and conclusively attributed to Van Dyck himself. 

Therefore, canvases should be looked at as dynamic entities, which often continue to change subsequent to completion by the artist; as in the case of the Bodleian’s Batoni, the original image as intended by the artist was changed by subsequent ‘censorship’ endeavours. While this is less so the case nowadays, where understanding of conservation surely guarantees the safe conservation of the original image, this was sadly not always the case during the pre-modern period.

However, it is not only later conservators who can change the image of an artwork – even artists themselves manipulate their works, often re-using old canvases and painting-over prior creations. Pentimento, as it is termed, is the alteration of a painting – one which hints at traces of a previous work. Pentimenti (plural) can be seen in a number of works by world-famous artists such as Picasso and Van Eyck. One such example is Picasso’s ‘The Old Guitarist’: created by the texture of the thick paint used, one can make out the ghostly outline of a woman’s face above the old man’s neck, the shape of her body and pair of parted feet just below his knee. Less visibly, infra-red reflectograms have revealed overpainted details in Jan Van Eyck’s famous ‘Arnolfini’ marriage portrait, including the man’s feet having been underdrawn in different positions and both sitters’ heads having been originally higher on the canvas. 

Aside from being a fascinating insight into the working mind of the artist, pentimenti are an important means by which to determine whether or not an artwork is: a) the first version by an artist; b) a second version by the same artist; c) a copy by the artist’s workshop; d) an entirely separate copy of the original work, by an unassociated artist. Therefore, the canvas itself can be a very useful tool in discovering details of a picture’s creation, or of those which might have been intended to be hidden by the artist themselves. The studying of pentimenti has even been used in cases such as with the (contested) attribution of the ‘Salvator Mundi’ to da Vinci, which famously sold for $450 million in 2017. 

While the art world knows endless information about the masterpieces it does have, the lesser-known – but nonetheless brilliant – works hold clues which, when (if) discovered, can immediately elevate their status. However, due to an imbalanced focus, it seems that the collective art conglomerate is interested in decoding all there is to discover about only the well-known works – perhaps, in spite of sleeping gems such as the Batoni. The work of individuals such as Grosvenor is, therefore, a remarkable labour to redefine paintings which have sat in archives for centuries. 

With each new re-discovery or attribution that’s made, we gain another work which adds to our collective artistic understanding and culture, offering a unique – as is Batoni’s depiction of scarring – insight which can even re-define a period or style, offering a new perspective which will provide art academics and gallery-visitors with years of fascination for the future. 

Image credit: Art UK