A Whale Hidden in a Dutch Painting

Something about the painting was 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 believed that they might be missing something.

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

There was 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 seemed like much ado about nothing. It looked like a mundane stretch of Dutch sand. The painting was donated to Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum in 1873 and the crowd it depicted seems to have been given little further consideration.

The painting remained at the museum for 140 years until it was 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 conservators decided to take the opportunity to restore it.

A Discovery During Restoration

The task of that restoration fell to conservator Shan Kuang of the Hamilton Kerr Institute, who made an astonishing discovery when she carefully removed the layers of finish.  Her work gradually exposed what appeared to be the figure of a man standing in midair over the water.

Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen detail showing figure uncovered midway through restoration at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

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 proceed. Working with solvents and tools under a microscope, Kuang’s expert hands set to work. Her efforts ultimately revealed, for the first time in more than a century, the figure of a massive beached whale.

Suddenly, the painting’s composition made sense. The throngs of people along the water’s edge and the clusters looking down from the hillsides were not mere winter visitors to the seaside. They were a curious crowd gathering to view a massive spectacle.

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

Whales Were All the Rage

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. That was likely in response to a number of beachings in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. 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.

As to why the original whale was covered with a 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 another artist to adjust it.

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

As Shan Kuang removed the old varnish from the surface, she revealed the whale that had been the intended focus of the scene

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