It was always a bit of a puzzle what the people clustered on the sands, or peering down from the dunes, were actually looking at on a bleak stretch of windswept Dutch beach. The startling truth has just been revealed, after the conservator
She first uncovered a baffling figure of man apparently standing in mid air, and then gradually revealed that he was standing on the great hillock of a beached whale, washed up on the shallows.
The 1641 landscape, View of Scheveningen Sands by
There was certainly no whale when it came to the museum in 1873, bequeathed by
Neither the curators nor Kuang have been able to trace any earlier reference to the whale, or to the overpainting that sank it. Kuang can't date the extra layer of paint, much more crudely applied than the original, though she suspects it may be 18th century and done because an owner thought the subject matter repellent, or a dealer thought the picture would sell better without a great dead animal taking up the middle ground.
"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," she said.
The painting only came to her at the
The varnish of the beach scene had yellowed and become unsightly, but as she removed it the mid air man appeared, beside what appeared to be a sail. She could also see that a stretch of the sea was clearly a later addition. There was a long debate among the experts about the potential risk of damaging the painting before she proceeded to remove the overpainting, using a scalpel and solvents, working on tiny areas under a microscope.
The whale was a complete surprise – they thought the little man, who may actually have been depicted measuring the great creature, might have been standing in the rigging of a boat.
The curators were interested that unlike contemporary prints showing whales as terrifying monsters and omens of disaster, Anthonissen had depicted one in a real event. Records show there were many reports of beaching whales in
Such strandings, being studied by scientists all over the world, still cause great excitement, attracting crowds and often doomed attempts to refloat them. Huge crowds turned out to watch the Thames whale, which got as far upstream as
There were fears six weeks ago that the bloated carcass of a dead blue whale which washed up near the
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