Thursday, 12 March 2015




Have you ever been in the middle of researching or writing a paper and suddenly become intrigued by a topic that is completely unrelated to what you should actually be focusing on? Have you started looking up more and more information about this topic? All of a sudden, it’s three o’clock in the morning and you have not made any progress on your paper. However, you feel a sense of accomplishment (and shame) that you could now write an entirely different paper on this new topic. If any of this sounds familiar, you might be a research addict. It’s hard to fight the urge not to spend hours looking up information on Wikipedia about how inbred the Hapsburg family really was or theories about what happened to Amelia Earhart. It’s definitely a form of procrastination, but it’s better than marathoning an entire series on Netflix. Right?

While I’ve been working on my thesis, I’ve had to stop myself many times from diving into other research. Recently, I’ve been interested in how works of art are sometimes altered. This interest developed from reading I've been doing on how early modern prints were used. As personal objects, many prints feature alterations or annotations made by those who owned them. Although works on paper were easier to alter, paintings were also often changed in a variety of ways. However, these alterations appear less obvious than the additions that were made to prints.

Titian. Venus with a Mirror. c. 1555. Oil on Canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington (Source: NGA
An x-ray of the painting revealed a portrait of an unknown couple (Source: NGA)

Reading about these prints made me think of Titian’s Venus with a Mirror, a painting I had written about for my first art history essay. I found this particular work intriguing because it was painted over an entirely different composition. X-rays of the canvas have revealed a portrait of a couple underneath the image of Venus. Titian used portions of the man’s cloak to develop the fabric Venus uses to cover herself. Unfortunately, the identity of the couple remains a mystery.

Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun. Marie Antoinette with her Children. 1787. Oil on Canvas. Palace of Versaille (Source: Wikipedia)

Other paintings have been altered for more tragic reasons. High mortality rates in children sometimes prompted families to remove images of their deceased infants from portraits. Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun’s portrait of Marie Antoinette with her Children includes an empty bassinet that appears to belong to baby seated on Marie’s lap. The bassinet once featured the image of her daughter Sophie. Sophie died shortly after the portrait was finished and was painted out because the sight of her daughter caused Marie too much pain. 

Left: Rembrandt. Woman with a Pink. c. 1660s. Oil on Canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Right: Autoradiographic image revealing the early stages of the painting and the face of a child

Rembrandt’s Woman with a Pink may have a similarly tragic story. Technicians at the Metropolitan Museum of Art used autoradiography to examine the painting and discovered that a child had once been part of the original composition. The image of the child was removed during the intermediate stages of the painting. It has been speculated that the child passed away after the portrait was commissioned. Other layers of the painting have revealed changes made to the design of the woman’s mouth. Alterations may have been made to her expression as the painting changed from a portrait of a mother and child, to a mother in mourning. 

Mysteries and personal stories can be hidden in the paintings you see in museums. A look below the surface of the paint can reveal unique information that would not otherwise be seen. While we may never know why some of these alterations have been made, they provide insight into artistic processes, the lives of patrons, and the lives of works of art themselves. Not all alternations made to paintings are significant. Some works exhibit small, decorative changes: the addition of flowers, a cat, or a musical instrument. These changes are sometimes made hundreds of years later by other artists.

There are worse ways to procrastinate, so indulge yourself next time you feel the urge to dive down the research rabbit hole!


  1. Try four....Musings keeps eating my comments.

    Thank you Katie for sharing this!

    I also have the tendency to go down research rabbit holes, which can actually get a little depressing. First, I get so excited about what I've learned, but when I try to share I realize so few people care about it in the same way (hence the need for the research I suppose). For instance, no one really wants to hear me talk about a spat between the head of a department and the Premier in 1985, which is evident in letters and notes from the period. Second, I end up with so much information that I can never include in any paper. Unless it is written down, the knowledge gets lost.

    1. Hey Robin - have you tried hitting "preview" before you publish your comment? I find that works for me in the disappearing comment department.

    2. Yes, it's a very strange glitch. I can't figure out why it does that. I always copy my comment before I post it, just in case.

  2. One of my favourite works is so especially because it's been altered. Lucas Cranach the Elder's 'Portrait of a Lady' features a lovely woman with an odd torso/arm area. Why? Well, she once carried a platted with a severed head on it!


    1. Thanks for sharing Holly. That's awesome!

      Cranach did other similar portraits of woman as Salome or Judith, severed heads included!