Painting Regrets? I Have a Few
Have you ever started a painting, perhaps gotten partially or completely finished, and then changed your mind about part of your work? To fix the problem, you either can start over or paint over the work. Undoubtedly, repainting over an artwork is a fairly common situation among artists. In fact, the process for this called “pentimento.”
Meaning repentance, pentimento is an Italian word referring to an alteration to a painting resulting in a recovering of a portion or all of a work. And, if we are careful about our painting alterations, it won’t harm the final picture.
There is a risk to painting over previous work, however. The underlying imagery may reappear over time due to aging or wear-and-tear, revealing the artist’s original work.
Thin layers of paint can become more transparent as they age, showing the ghost-like images of a previous painting. Art restorers and historians sometimes use X-rays and infrared scans to uncover the pentimento in a painting, which can help in the authentication processes.
In most cases, we assume the artist probably never intended for the underlying imagery to be revealed. He or she may have chosen to remove an element to strengthen composition, or reposition a figure, for instance. In others, the paintings may have been altered later to suit the audience or a change in decor.
Now, let’s examine two famous examples.
The well-known John Singer Sargent painting, Madame X, was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1884 in a different form than the one we are used to seeing today. The original painting featured Madame Pierre Gautreau (Madame X) with one strap of her elegant black gown off her shoulder.
The stunning portrait was highly controversial and damaged the reputation of Madame Pierre Gautreau and of Sargent as well. Sargent later “repented” by repainting the strap to rest in place on Madame Gautreau’s shoulder.
When donating the painting to The Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in 1916, Sargent requested the identity of the subject be disguised to reduce the scandal created by the painting. (Hence, the title of the famous portrait, Madame X.)
View of Scheveningen Sands
A very blatant over-painting is seen in the 1641 landscape, View of Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen. Conservators at The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, where the painting has resided for more than 140 years, noticed the varnish on its surface had yellowed considerably.
Upon careful restoration, the painting revealed an additional figure standing next to a beached whale. The paint layer covering the figure and whale was applied more crudely than the original paint application.
This suggests that the paint layer may have been added much later by a different artist to suit changing tastes. Perhaps a dying whale was not the mood for a living room in the 18th century?
Sargent consciously made the changes to his painting. Van Anthonissen most likely did not. As artists, most of us (if not all) would rather not have the former versions of our paintings revealed. But the stories these pentimento works tell can be fascinating glimpses of past lifestyles.
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