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A Dutch seascape and its lost Leviathan
June 5, 2014 9:59 AM   Subscribe

"Earlier this year a conservator at the Hamilton Kerr Institute made a surprising discovery while working on a 17th-century painting owned by the Fitzwilliam Museum. As Shan Kuang cleaned the surface, she revealed the beached whale that had been the intended focus of the composition."
posted by brundlefly (37 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was literally writing this post up in notepad when this appeared
posted by The Whelk at 10:01 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


I love this, and cannot fathom why they originally covered the whale. A picture of a seascape with people milling about isn't particularly interesting. A painting of a beached whale is a treasure forever.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:03 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Full whale reveal at 2:30 into the video.
posted by travertina at 10:09 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Decomposing whales can be dangerous. Better to paint over it than be sorry.
posted by monospace at 10:10 AM on June 5 [5 favorites]


I wish you'd make your post still, The Whelk, with something better than a text article with an embedded Youtube video of a camera pointed at a painting. I invested literally two minutes and found a couple of small images. Detail view, Guardian article with before and after images. These may well be stills of the video, maybe a high-res image is out there somewhere?
posted by Nelson at 10:12 AM on June 5 [4 favorites]


The Guardian has a hi-res version of the whale one. I couldn't find a before.
posted by smackfu at 10:26 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


Here you go.
posted by brundlefly at 10:26 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Jinx!
posted by brundlefly at 10:26 AM on June 5


A larger version of the before
posted by smackfu at 10:28 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


While I appreciate Ms. Kuang's historical background regarding attitudes towards aesthetics over painter's intent in works of art, I wish she had explained how they determined that having the whale as the focal point was the ultimate intent.
Part of me wonders if Anthonissen painted over it on purpose.

That led me on an unproductive mental tangent, imagining myself entering a new career as a conservator determined that the original intent for all painters was a blank canvas. But then I'd probably piss of Zombie John Cage.
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 10:30 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


This pushes all my buttons, every single one. Possibly it could be better if the whale completes a painting-wide riddle and sets off an adventure that eventually uncovers an ancient secret treasure.

But this is still pretty good.
posted by peachfuzz at 10:30 AM on June 5 [6 favorites]


The whale turns out to be left there by a ski resort.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:36 AM on June 5


in how many portraits by the old masters were the subjects holding cats, which were later painted over as possibly satanic symbols?
posted by bruce at 10:36 AM on June 5


The first article I read about this addressed staccato's point - they do take artistic intent into account and determined that the overpainted section, while therefor hundreds of years, was not painted by Anthonissen. That made the decision to scrape away all the easier.
posted by thecjm at 10:37 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Thanks thecjm! Did I miss that in the OP, or was the first article you read elsewhere?
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 10:39 AM on June 5


I'm imagining someone in the late 18th century staring at the painting before turning to a friend.

"Do you know what I greatly disapprove of Rolf?"

"What Ma'am?"

".....whales"
posted by The Whelk at 10:40 AM on June 5 [5 favorites]


It's actually from the OP. I read the Cambridge article yesterday and noted the following:

"Conservators face difficult decisions when confronted with overpainting. “It’s important that we are true to the artist’s intentions. After establishing that Anthonissen had not made this alteration himself, the decision was made – in conjunction with curators at the Fitzwilliam – to uncover the original paint hiding beneath the repaint,” said Kuang."

And

"By this time I could also make out an area of the sea which had been painted more crudely than the rest of the ocean"

The whale wasn't there when it first entered the collection in the 18th C, so the change was made by someone somewhere in the first hundred years of the painting's existence (or van Anthonissen did it as a rush job).
posted by thecjm at 10:45 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


"It’s possible that the whale was removed because the presence of a dead animal was considered offensive – or perhaps without the whale the picture was more marketable,”

Small minds have been always destroying art for profit.
posted by hat_eater at 10:48 AM on June 5


Are there early (<c17) accounts of exploding whales? They must have gone bang back then...
posted by Devonian at 10:48 AM on June 5


A couple of decades ago I had dinner with a young woman who was doing an art conservation internship at the Tate Gallery in London. They had piles of dusty old paintings in storage that they'd have her practice on.

She told the story of cleaning up a 17th or 18th century portrait of a young man wearing a bright vest with a silk brocade and large brass buttons. As she worked on it, much to her horror, the brocade and buttons started to disappear!

She talked to her supervisor who brought in someone from the costume department of the museum. That person looked at the painting, checked its provenance, and pretty quickly explained that the brocade and button were completely out-of-character for the period when the painting was originally painted. They had to have been added about 75 years later.

With that reassurance my friend proceeded with her restoration work, removing the rest of the buttons and brocade while cleaning the painting as a whole and restoring it to its original intent and glory.

So, not a whale, but apparently stuff like this is pretty common.
posted by alms at 10:50 AM on June 5 [6 favorites]


Truly a Prince of Whales.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:51 AM on June 5


Interesting that cleaning the painting removed some of the paint that was used to paint over the whale. Oops.
posted by smackfu at 11:00 AM on June 5


Looks a little to me like one of those joke paintings where inappropriate things are added to otherwise unremarkable scenes. I can see why someone painted it over.

With that reassurance my friend proceeded with her restoration work, removing the rest of the buttons and brocade while cleaning the painting as a whole and restoring it to its original intent and glory.


What they should have done was to mark a diagonal line across the thing, clear up one side and leave the other as button'n'brocade man improved it 75 years later. Let it serve an off-beat didactic purpose rather than just add to the number of otherwise unremarkable portraits of forgotten footnotes.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:11 AM on June 5


Proud of his work, Hendrick van Anthonissen, gestured at the painting and turned to a nearby spectator and excitedly exclaimed," See this whale?! This whale is like Uber for ocean side landscapes!"

Other posts aside, I do love how there's someone standing on top of the whale. That somewhere in Holland of the past, there was apparently some guy who saw the beached whale and immediately decided, "If I'm not standing on top of that whale within the hour, something has gone amiss!"
posted by Atreides at 11:16 AM on June 5 [7 favorites]


I love this. It's like the Branwell Brontë of whales.
posted by mynameisluka at 11:29 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


"I hate the way my patrons always insist I make changes to my paintings, picking on even the smallest things."

"Just paint something totally conspicuous in the scene, and they'll feel satisfied when they tell you to paint it out."

(I swear somebody actually said they did this, like add a stupid cartoon frog to their work so the committee felt it was doing its job by naysaying it.)
posted by Thing at 11:38 AM on June 5


ther posts aside, I do love how there's someone standing on top of the whale. That somewhere in Holland of the past, there was apparently some guy who saw the beached whale and immediately decided, "If I'm not standing on top of that whale within the hour, something has gone amiss!"
posted by Atreides at 2:16 PM on June 5 [1 favorite +] [!]


In many instances whales were beached after being hunted making it easier to process them. http://www.coolantarctica.com/gallery/whales_whaling/images/025.jpg
posted by Gungho at 11:45 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


(I swear somebody actually said they did this, like add a stupid cartoon frog to their work so the committee felt it was doing its job by naysaying it.)

I've heard that some filmmakers do this before sending a movie to be rated by the MPAA. Include something that's, say, really graphically violent. The ratings board will notice that, tell you you need to cut it in order to get an R, and you end up cutting it back to what you actually wanted in the first place.
posted by brundlefly at 11:53 AM on June 5


(I swear somebody actually said they did this, like add a stupid cartoon frog to their work so the committee felt it was doing its job by naysaying it.)

5. A Duck (scroll down).
posted by pharm at 12:37 PM on June 5 [2 favorites]


What they should have done was to mark a diagonal line across the thing, clear up one side and leave the other as button'n'brocade man improved it 75 years later. Let it serve an off-beat didactic purpose rather than just add to the number of otherwise unremarkable portraits of forgotten footnotes.

This touches on an interesting question: what's more important, the original intent of the painter, or the history of the painting since its creation? I don't know, but it seems like the art world has come down pretty definitively in favor of the painter's intent.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:48 PM on June 5 [2 favorites]


I've heard that some filmmakers do this before sending a movie to be rated by the MPAA. Include something that's, say, really graphically violent. The ratings board will notice that, tell you you need to cut it in order to get an R, and you end up cutting it back to what you actually wanted in the first place.

This also works well in the technical writing world. Leave an intentional, not glaring but obvious and excusable error in the work for the technical reviewers to find. Those that find it get the satisfaction that they have improved the product. Those that don't actually review it at all but tell you "It's fine" are duly noted.
posted by Pliskie at 1:00 PM on June 5


i love love love art history, and art crime, i can never get enough of this stuff, thank you
posted by maiamaia at 1:45 PM on June 5


It's a little known fact that Jackson Pollock developed his signature 'drip style' of painting while hastily attempting to cover over a botched portrait of Porky Pig.
posted by Atom Eyes at 1:46 PM on June 5 [2 favorites]


(I swear somebody actually said they did this, like add a stupid cartoon frog to their work so the committee felt it was doing its job by naysaying it.)

that would be the hairy arm tactic
posted by doiheartwentyone at 3:43 PM on June 5


I love this. It's like the Branwell Brontë of whales.

Or a Cetacean Giulia de’ Medici.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:11 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


...do whales really have dorsal fins like that? Maybe it was painted over by an offended marine biologist.
posted by zeptoweasel at 5:27 PM on June 5


Depends on the whale. Dutch whalers typically hunted Bowhead whales, who do not have dorsal fins, but this is a seascape that shows Scheveningen, a subdistrict of The Hague, and if it is a self-beached whale, instead of a hunted whale that has been dragged back to shore, it's likely a minke whale, which does have a dorsal fin.

Apparently Dutch paintings of beached whales were a thing, and beached whales were seen as portents of doom. They were popular during a time when the Netherlands was facing an uncertain future, and when the country became more secure the paintings went out of fashion. I can imagine this as having been part of a collection and, when its subject matter became passe (and its message of doom unpopular), the owner decided it was high time to make it a little less like a mad oracle screaming out prophesies of doom in the form of a dying sea monster, and more like a nice oceanfront scene.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:05 AM on June 6 [3 favorites]


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