HiddenMessages: 5 mysteries under the surface of paint

 Every work has a story, and sometimes it may be hiding beneath the surface of the painting itself. So let’s discover the reasons that led 5 artists to modify part of their work, by covering it with a new layer of paint!

Repentance: what the artists wanted to hide from us

The repentance of an artist on his canvas most of the time leaves scars, rarely visible to the naked eye. But discovering what is hidden under the paint of a work can tell us a lot about the intentions of its creator!

It is then that it happens, during technological analyses , that scientists discover under the surface, a previous layer of paint , which offers us clues to the past of the work! As for restorers , they can sometimes discover fortuitously, by unwittingly removing what they thought was a layer of varnish, an unexpected image  !

#1 The Lady with the Ermine , Leonardo da Vinci

In 1900 , the discovery of a letter made it possible to give a name to this Lady with an Ermine. She was previously unidentified. This is Cecilia Gallerani , the mistress of Ludovico Sforza , the uncle of the Duke of Milan!

The identification of this woman made it possible to discover more about the iconography of the work but also about the commissioner , Sforza himself. He hired the no less famous Leonardo da Vinci to paint the portrait of his mistress.

Leonardo da Vinci, Beneath the Surface The Lady with an Ermine, 1488

More than 100 years later, in 2004 , technology allows us to discover a new key element of the work. That year, the French engineer Pascal Cotte uses the LAM Method (Layer Amplification Method), a multispectral camera that allows you to discover what is hidden under the surface of the paint!

This technological analysis reveals two painted images , which predated the final portrait as we know it today. In the first version, Cecilia is alone , without a pet. In the second version, the ermine is added . But she is smaller, thinner and grayer than the beast in the final image!

below the surface of the lady with an ermine

First version of the Lady with an Ermine

below the surface of the lady with an ermine

Second version from La Dame a l’Hermine

What is interesting to know is that one of Ludovico Sforza’s nicknames was l’Ermino , or Hermine Blanche in French! Additionally, we also know that shortly before his affair with Cecilia, Sforza had joined the Knightly Order of the Ermine . An animal endowed with great symbolism, the ermine would rather die than soil its white fur!

Thus, the added ermine may be a will of the sponsor. Would he have liked to make a link between his lover and himself, by an almost metaphorical allusion ? Indeed, the ermine, totem animal of Sforza , could represent him on the knees of his mistress! This could mean the intensification of their romantic relationship, which would perhaps be more official  !

#2 The Reader at the Window , Johannes Vermeer

A woman alone, reading a letter in a room, facing an open window… Yes, we are necessarily talking about a work by Johannes Vermeer , this Dutch artist who specializes in genre scenes  ! This painting, The Reader at the Window , is moreover one of the first paintings which marks his transition from religious painting to genre painting.

But this painting, which could seem of an absolute simplicity, concealed during centuries an astonishing secrecy  ! Indeed, an X- ray analysis carried out in 1979 reveals the presence of a painting within the painting, on the back wall of the room. This illustrates a Cupid trampling two theatrical masks. This gesture symbolizes the triumph of loyal love over adultery and hypocrisy!

Johannes Vermeer, The Reader at the Window, 1657-1659, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden under the surface of

Johannes Vermeer, The Reader at the Window , 1657-1659, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

This image hidden under the surface of the painting, in a superposition, then offers us a new possibility of interpretation  ! This cherub gives meaning to this letter, which is certainly intended to be a love letter , read under the seal of cupid, guarantor of faithful and sincere love.

In 2017 , a restoration project reveals more. Scientists discover that the layer of paint covering the Cupid had been deposited several decades after the creation of the work , and therefore after the death of the artist! This repaint was therefore not a choice of Vermeer!

Johannes Vermeer, The Reader at the Window, 1657-1659, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden (after restoration)

Johannes Vermeer, The Reader at the Window , 1657-1659, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden (after restoration)

The following year, the historians of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam finally decided to remove the layer of paint in order to find the original work imagined by the artist. This intervention carried out with a scalpel under a microscope was just completed last year, in 2021  ! 

The restored work was presented for the very first time at the exhibition “  Johannes Vermeer. On Reflection  ” at the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. It took place from September 2021 to January 2022. 

#3 La Repasseuse , Pablo Picasso

Between 1901 and 1904, Pablo Picasso experimented with blue , in all its shades. This experimentation with color by the artist is due to a sad event. Indeed, in 1901, one of his friends committed suicide with a pistol shot, in a Parisian cafe.

Then follows a dark period , punctuated by sadness, loneliness and despair. Blue, a symbol of melancholy , thus became the only color of his canvases during the three years that followed this misfortune.

In 1904 , Picasso completed  La Ironer . In this blue painting, a woman is ironing a sheet. Thin and marked by fatigue, her face is devoid of joy. She seems to be struggling with her household chores. 

During this period of his life, Picasso also experienced financial difficulties. This painful poverty , he illustrates it in this painting! Moreover, as he had few means, the artist reused his already painted canvases to create new ones! No waste at Picasso!

This mania for repainting over his old paintings was confirmed to us by an X- ray analysis of  La Repasseuse,  in 1989 . This analysis reveals the silhouette of a man standing! 

Pablo Picasso, La Repasseuse, 1804 ©Guggenheim Museum

Pablo Picasso, La Repasseuse , 1804

Pablo Picasso, La Repasseuse, 1804 ©Guggenheim Museum

Pablo Picasso, La Repasseuse , 1804

In the early 2000s , the scientist from the National Gallery of Art in Washington , John Delany , used hyperspectral cameras to obtain additional information about this man! Represented in three-quarters, the man is mustachioed, and stands in front of an object that seems to be an easel  !

Moreover, during the restoration of the work in 2012, Julien Barten , the restorer of the Guggenheim Museum, discovered touches of pink on the woman’s dress. This rose could thus indicate the passage of the artist from his blue period to his pink period , which began in 1904 !

#4 Les Menines , Diego Velasquez

In 1622, Velasquez went to Madrid. During this stay, he produced portraits of personalities of the royal court. Faced with his success, the artist becomes the official painter of the King  !

In 1651 the Infanta Marguerite was born from the marriage of Philippe IV and Marianne of Austria. Five years later, the king commissioned Velasquez to create a masterpiece that is now world famous:  Las Meninas . This work has in particular aroused great attraction on the part of art historians for its complexity  !

Diego Velasquez, Les Menines, 1656, Musee du Prado, Madrid

Diego Velasquez, Les Menines , 1656, Musee du Prado, Madrid

During the restoration of the painting, the scientists discovered an earlier version in which neither the painter nor the easel appeared! In their place, a young man turned to the Infanta, handing her a baton of command , thus marking her status as heiress.

This first performance was actually intended to be a public work. But, in 1657 was born Philippe Prosper , who will be the male heir and will take power in place of the Infanta… Following this change, the artist is forced to modify the work , its meaning, the order of the scene but also its destination. The originally public work becomes private , intended for an intimate family space.

Las Meninas, detail

Las Meninas , detail

Las Meninas, detail

Las Meninas , detail

For this, the artist integrates into the work his self -portrait in the process of painting on an easel the dynastic portrait of the king and queen. Because indeed, the mirror located on the back wall reflects the royal couple, which is therefore in our place, as a spectator. This mirror thus creates a kind of mise-en-abime !

The insertion of Velasquez in the dynastic family scene thus modifies the meaning of the work. The artist proposes a new composition, which is no longer turned towards the Infanta but on the act of making a dynastic portrait, thus flattering the ego of the monarch  !

#5 Madame X, John Singer Sargent

Madame X is   a portrait of the young expatriate from Louisiana, Virginie Gautreau . Produced in 1884 by John Singer Sargent, this canvas was the victim of a resounding scandal when it was exhibited at the 1884 Salon des artistes francais in Paris. 

In reality, the work we know today is not quite the version exhibited at this Salon. The first version of the portrait did indeed have some significant differences. First, the very white skin of the young woman was compared by the public to that of a corpse and her head in profile to a haughty posture . 

John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1884, MET, NY

John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1884, MET, NY

But the element that certainly shocked the public the most was the right strap of her dress. This one was not in the position that we know, but it had fallen on the shoulder of the young woman. This fallen suspender was judged as scandalous, inappropriate and vulgar  !

John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1884, MET, NY (original before artist's modification)

John Singer Sargent, Madame X , 1884, MET, NY (original before artist’s modification)

It was then that Sargent decided to put the ramp back in place, hoping to calm the unrest from the public . But it’s already too late… The artist then sees his orders becoming fewer and fewer. He even goes so far as to admit to his English poet and writer friend Edmund Gosse that he plans to stop painting for music. After all, he decides to settle in London and continue his career as a portraitist  !

Finally, Sargent proudly exhibited his canvas in his London studio, before selling it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1916 , just a few months after the death of Madame Gautreau!