Why Hidden Paintings Keep Being Found

The portrait is that of Sir John Maitland (1543-1595), the first Lord Maitland. It hangs normally in a London gallery. The picture was painted two years after Mary died in 1589. Maitland had attained the position of Lord Chancellor. The artist is Adrian Vanson, a Low Country painter who became the court painter of James VI (Mary’s son) later.

Vanson had originally planned a very different portrait. In place of Maitland, with his characteristic mustache and goatee, we see a woman’s face turned slightly in the other direction. The silhouette of a square-necked gown with a wired-lace ruff is clearly visible. This ghostly appearance may be due to someone who needed to be forgotten.

What is it? National Galleries of Scotland

Mary Stuart, who plotted the murder of Elizabeth I in England, was executed. The few authentic portraits that exist, such as two minis painted by English painter Nicholas Hilliard, were used to identify her image.

The painting could have been started around the time that Mary was executed. It is not impossible, but it would be surprising. Portraits of Mary were still in high demand in Scotland at one time, but they were deemed too dangerous. Vanson, whether he was asked to do this by a patron or if he did it on his initiative to hide the politically sensitive evidence.

Cover-ups and more covers

There are many examples in art history of portraits that have been destroyed or covered up. They are often politically motivated and sometimes known as Damnatio Memoae, the condemnation or memory. The ancient Roman senate would sometimes order the destruction of images of past emperors that were on coins or life-size statues. Often, only the heads of these statues and coins were replaced.

Other good examples can be found from Mary’s time. After surviving a recent assassination attempt, the Italian bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi ordered a painting depicting the Madonna and Child with his portrait. His family painted his picture at a later time to replace it with an infant Saint John the Baptist. The painting is so pristine that no one would ever guess it was once a bishop.

Madonna and Child (1503), Lorenzo Lotto

In the 16th century, Bianca Capello was the grand duchess in Tuscany. She fell victim to a campaign called Damnatio Memoae after she died prematurely and possibly violently. Her brother-in-law, Ferdinando de’ Medici, destroyed many of her portraits.

Other examples are more recent. Before Photoshop, the Soviet Union had a reputation for erasing undesirable figures from photographs. Stalin airbrushed the image of Nikolai Yezhov after his 1940 execution. Nazis and Chinese Communists are also known for this.

Nikolai Yezhov disappears from Stalin’s Left…

Artists often covered up their original compositions but for reasons other than politics. Vincent van Gogh is known to have recycled canvases in order to save money. Researchers attributed similar motives to Pablo Picasso three years ago after discovering a portrait with a man wearing a bow tie beneath his blue room. The discovery of Edgar Degas’s favorite model underneath his Portrait of a Woman was no less spectacular.

Art historians have used X-rays for more than a century to identify the artist of paintings. However, the limitations of this method are that it only produces a black-and-white image, which is limited depending on the chemical makeup of the paint.

It is difficult to interpret the results. However, it can produce important results, as this latest discovery shows. Recent advances in X-ray technology have enabled this problem to be overcome in some cases. A technique called X-ray Fluorescence allows under-paintings to be seen in full-colour high-resolution. It was this technique that revealed the image of the Degas painting.

It is only a question of time until old masters make more amazing discoveries. Specialised knowledge and expensive equipment are needed, but it’s not impossible. What else could be revealed if the Maitland picture was treated with similar techniques? This is a tempting prospect.

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