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Hendrick van Anthonissen’s Hidden Whale

Something about the painting was peculiar…not necessarily ‘wrong’, but certainly peculiar.  At face value, Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen (1641) appeared to be just another fine Dutch Golden Age landscape, but curators and discerning viewers always had a inkling that they might be missing something.

Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen
Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen as it appeared prior to restoration.

There was certainly a lot of activity on the beach for it being so bland.  There was even a group of people clustered on the dunes (in the upper left of the piece) looking down toward the water.  It all seemed like much ado about nothing given that there was nothing in the image other than a relatively mundane stretch of Dutch sand; but then again, such imagery wasn’t all that unusual.  Thus, ever since the painting was donated to Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum in 1873, it appears that no one really thought anything was amiss, let alone missing.

The painting remained in its donated form for 140 years before it was recently removed from the wall in preparation for the renovation of the museum’s Dutch Golden Age gallery.  The original protective varnish had begun to yellow and curators decided to take the opportunity to clean it up a bit.  The task of that restoration fell to conservator Shan Kuang of the Hamilton Kerr Institute, who made what must have been an absolutely astonishing discovery as she carefully removed the layers of finish.  As she work, she gradually exposed what appeared to be the figure of man standing in midair over the water.

Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen detail showing figure uncovered midway through restoration.
Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen detail showing figure uncovered midway through restoration.

Assuming that the figure must be standing on the rigging of some large vessel, conservators and curators debated the associated risks of continuing with the restoration process before ultimately allowing Kuang to continue.  Working with solvents and tools under a microscope, Kuang’s expert hands set to work on efforts that would ultimately reveal, for the first time in more than a century, the figure of a massive beached whale.

Suddenly, the painting made sense.  The throngs of people along the water’s edge and the clusters looking down from the hillsides were transformed from mere winter visitors to the type of curious crowd that would be expected to gather upon the appearance of such a massive oddity on their shores.

Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen
Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen as it appears after the restoration.

Historically, the overall imagery isn’t that unique.  According to curators, there was a surge of interest in whales around the time this painting was created; most likely in response to a number of beachings in the Netherlands in the early 17th century.  However, what makes this painting stand apart from similar works involving whales is that van Anthonissen chose to depict the event modestly and realistically rather than sensationalizing it.

Why the original whale was covered with a much more crudely applied coat of paint at some point after its creation remains a mystery but, as Kuang aptly points out,  “Today we treat works of art as entities, but in the previous centuries paintings were often elements of interior design that were adapted to fit certain spaces – or adjusted to suit changing tastes.”  It is therefore possible that someone took offense to the image of a dead animal on their wall and commissioned an artist to…adjust it.

Whatever the case may have been, the rediscovery is clearly something to be celebrated and serves as another reminder, at least for me, of the important role that artistic works occupy in our documentation and interpretation of natural history over time.

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