United Kingdom – Shan Kuang, a conservation student at the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam was tasked with removing a coat of varnish from a 17th-century Dutch seascape. Varnish is typically found on oil paintings, but unfortunately yellows over time.
Kuang found a surprise: An image of a beached whale that had been hidden for at least 150 years.
Until the discovery the painting — “View of Scheveningen Sands,” created by Hendrick van Anthonissen around 1641 — simply showed groups of people gathered on a beach in The Hague in the Netherlands.
Upon the discovery, this is what Kuang had to say: “It seemed a very unassuming painting depicting a very calm beach scene set in winter, There were clusters of people gathered. I was unclear why they were there, but it didn’t seem too out of normal.”
Why was the whale was covered? No one knows. It could be that people did not want to see a dead whale. But I suppose it does not matter.
“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,” Kuang explained in a statement. “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.”
The Fitzwilliam Museum acquired “View of Scheveningen Sands” in 1873.
The painting is still at the Fitzwilliam Museum and is on permanent display in the gallery of Dutch Golden Age painting.