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Painting Cover-Ups, Exposed! | Conservation Lab

Here’s a brief, multi-century tour of artworks that caused a fuss—and were swiftly buried under fresh layers of paint.
Image de Une : Statue of Persée, Musée Pius-Clemente, Vatican. Photo : Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia Commons.

In art institutions across the globe, time machines and investigation rooms exist behind closed doors. Dusty artworks go in and come out looking centuries younger; artists' secrets are brought to light; and hidden, unfinished images emerge from behind famous compositions. Every week, we'll peek beneath the microscope and zoom in on the art of preservation, where art meets science and just a little bit of magic: this is Conservation Lab.


Crass humor, sacrilegious ideas, and of course, penises—these are just some of the things that have aroused impassioned opposition throughout art history. Considering the unspeakable number of artworks that have been destroyed in the name of religion, politics, or decency, we should probably be thankful in cases wherein the original still exists (with but a few dabs of concealer). And now that conservators have X-ray vision and other modern powers at their disposal, they're getting better and better at uncovering artists' true intentions—and the intentions of those who couldn't handle the heat.

Pre- and post-conservation views of Hendrick van Anthonissen's View of Scheveningen Sands, c.1641. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

When Hendrick van Anthonissen's View of Scheveningen Sands was gifted to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1873, no one knew why all those people were gathered on the beach, heading in a single direction. The composition finally started to make sense when conservator Shan Kuang found evidence of overpainting, and carefully scratched it off until the Dutch painter's massive beached whale found its way back to shore. Experts speculate the dead animal was considered unpalatable, and that the alteration was made a century or two after the picture was painted so it would sell more easily. Just a classic tale of money trumping creativity.

(Left) British School, possibly Coventry. The Kiss of Judas, c. 1470. © The Hamilton Kerr Institute. (Back) Back of panel, where infrared technology unveiled faint traces of lettering.

When it isn't money getting in the way of an artist's vision, it's usually religion. During the Protestant Reformation, Puritan iconoclasts pulverized nearly every church painting in England, making the above medieval depiction of Judas a true rarity. Last year, infrared imaging performed on the back of the panel revealed faint traces of lettering, and explained why this one was spared: It had been turned around and repurposed to list the Ten Commandments instead.


John Dee demonstrating an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I, by Henry Gillard Glindoni. Painting above, X-ray imaging below. Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

16th century polymath

John Dee

is remembered as a complex, enigmatic figure—he was both a rigorous scholar and an avid magician who spent a good part of his life trying to commune with angels. Yet when Victorian artist Henry Gillard Glindoni tried to pay tribute to Dee's occultist tendencies in a painting of the man performing an experiment, a nervous buyer likely quashed his ambitions. Glindoni's original vision included a circle of skulls at Dee's feet, which the artist eventually painted over. A century later, though, the skulls have been fighting their way back towards the surface, bleeding through the top layers of paint. The pentimento was

clarified with X-ray imaging

in 2015.

Detail of Isack van Ostade (Dutch, 1621-1649), Peasants Outside a Farmhouse Butchering Pork, 1641. © The Norton Simon Foundation. Above, pre-conservation. Below, post-conservation (photography courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles).

2015 was also a good year for Isack van Ostade's bathroom humor. In


, the Royal Collection Trust announced that restorers had discovered a pooping man in one of his paintings, who had been hiding behind a bush that was added in the early 1900s. In


, it was the Norton Simon Foundation's turn, revealing another open-air toilet scene in one of Ostade's works. This time, the squatting offender was disguised as sitting on a stool. Isack's brother Adriaen was long considered the rowdier of the two 17th century genre painters, but these back-to-back discoveries set the records straight.

Michelangelo's The Last Judgment, painted in the Sistine Chapel between 1536 and 1541.

When it comes to masking indecency, the Vatican might rank highest on the scoreboard. Not even Michelangelo was spared from the great fig leaf campaign of the 16th century: After his death, strategically placed bits of drapery were added to his very fleshy rendition of the Last Judgment. Many of these, however, were removed in a later restoration.


Let that serve as a warning to anyone who tries to cover up controversy—sooner or later, we'll see right through it.


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