What do you do when you’re feeling blue? For many, picking up a creative hobby — writing, drawing, music — does the trick; it’s a healthy way to work out emotions and express yourself. For a young artist named Pablo Picasso, creativity was essential for his peace of mind.
These days, Picasso is a household name, but we’re still finding out more and more about how he poured himself into his art. See, the artist, born and raised in Spain, had a knack for incorporating the unexpected into his work, and experts are finally noticing a surprising anomaly hidden in one of the artist’s most famous paintings.
Why did Picasso draw people with eyes on top of their heads and mouths where their chins should be? Well, he didn’t start out that way. All those blocky portraits with wild colors were from his Cubism Period. Before cubes, Picasso had a totally different style.
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In 1901, Picasso’s good friend Carlos Casagemas took his own life, sending Picasso into a deep depression. While he mourned, his art’s themes became much drearier. His beautiful, but rather traditional, style entered a “Blue Period.”
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The first painting of Picasso’s Blue Period depicted the recently deceased Carlos lying in his coffin. From there, he became fixated on uncomfortable subjects, including beggars and prostitutes, using mostly bright, sickly blues. Suddenly, buyers weren’t interested in his “dismal”work. That is, except for one piece.
About 20 years after Picasso’s Blue Period ended, his painting, The Old Guitarist, was first to be added to a museum’s permanent collection. In it, a slumping man in ragged clothes strums a golden-brown guitar; his last shred of hope in a blue world. Now, experts believe the guitar represents something more.
In many of Picasso’s paintings, even amateurs could see hidden clues. Now, experts are using advanced infrared technology to examine the artist’s work and reveal the layers beneath. In some cases, they come across simple discoveries, such as in The Blue Room.
Look closely. Notice anything? This is another piece from Picasso’s Blue Period that became famous, though not quite popular as The Old Guitarist. With its lighter tones and bits of color, The Blue Room appears to have been from the end of the artist’s blue series. But the experts could see inconsistencies.
Here is the painting again after one infrared scan. Even before scanning, researchers could notice distinct lines and colors popping out from the composition beneath. If you can’t tell what it is yet, try turning your head before you peek at the next photo.
Can you see the hidden man? Before The Blue Room became one of Picasso’s classics, the canvas was used for another painting, a portrait of Parisian art dealer, Ambrose Villard. After this discovery, examiners had much bigger paintings to unmask.
And when we say big, we mean big. Picasso loved working on huge canvases that he could repaint whenever inspiration hit. Sometimes this meant scrapping old ideas. Other times, it meant finding inspiration from previous compositions. This even meant taking ideas directly from other artists.
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In another Blue Period painting, La Misereuse accroupie, researchers discovered a landscape that was not painted by Picasso. Sometimes, he reused other artists’ canvases because he couldn’t afford new ones or because he was inspired by the other artist’s composition. With The Old Guitarist, however, something else was going on.
Take a look at this close-up of The Old Guitarist. If you think you can spot someone staring back at you, you’re not alone. Even without infrared scans, onlookers can see a face hidden within the famous artwork.
Here, the outline of the previous composition becomes clear. The face belongs to a woman who is breastfeeding her small child. Mirrored next to them is a mother cow with her baby calf. This hopeful imagery has been spotted by art historians before.
In a letter sent to his friend, Picasso had sketched nearly the same exact image that was hidden in The Old Guitarist. While you may not be able to read the letter, a couple words stand out; “blue” for the background and “rouge” for the foreground. However, researchers didn’t pick up on these clues immediately.
A 2019 paper titled Raiders Of The Lost Art explains how researchers uncovered the hidden layers. “By applying neural style transfer to x-radiographs of artwork with secondary interior artwork beneath a primary exterior…. [we can] reconstruct lost artwork.” Take a look at this example.
Essentially, researchers were pulling out the underlying shapes and using other artwork from Picasso’s Blue Period to reconstruct beautiful images like this, titled La Femme Perdue. If you’re wondering something about the colors, then you already realize what the researchers were missing!
Anthony Bourached/George H. CannAnthony Bourached/George H. Cann
After closer examination, researchers realized that a chunk of the underlying painting was made entirely with red paint. This was very unlike Picasso at the time. Remember his sketch with the words “blue” and “rouge?” Many believe this underlying painting was Picasso’s first delve into his next phase: The Rose Period.
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There was, in fact, another painting hidden beneath the mother and child, painted in Picasso’s classic blue tones. It depicted a frail, elderly woman, which was much more in line with his style at the time. However, the rose-colored layer sandwiched in between these two blue layers may indicate a big change in Picasso’s life.
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In 1904, just at the end of his Blue Period, Picasso met and fell in love with a French model named Fernande Olivier. Their relationship, while tumultuous, gave way to Picasso’s happier Rose Period. However, this timeline doesn’t necessarily line up with the creation of The Old Guitarist.
While Fernande was certainly an inspiration to Picasso, a glimmer of hope was already arising in his work. After all, the hopefulness of the bright guitar in The Old Guitarist is what made the masterpiece stand out. What is the underlying message of this discovery that even Picasso needed to hear?
As the old saying goes, “You can’t love someone else until you love yourself.” Perhaps Picasso’s ability to form a new relationship with Fernande, and thus his own artwork, came from his personal development. Apparently, art really is the best therapy.
Picasso knew that hiding details in art only makes pieces all the more enjoyable. People will scrutinize minor strokes decades after a piece is finished. We’re still uncovering hidden parts of history’s greatest works.
1. David – Michelangelo: Chances are you haven’t seen every side of this all-time masterpiece. Depending on your viewing angle, David’s facial expression is totally different. The shepherd boy either looks resolute ahead of his battle with Goliath, or filled with doubt.
2. The Last Supper – Leonardo da Vinci: Thanks to Dan Brown, there are tons of crazy theories about this masterpiece. But here’s a verified Easter egg. Da Vinci hid musical notes under the bread and hands, which form an original composition.
3. Café Terrace at Night – Vincent van Gogh: Speaking of da Vinci, the Dutch genius included a mind-blowing homage here. The café houses a white-robed figure surrounded by twelve others — unmistakably a secret recreation of The Last Supper!
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4. The Ambassadors – Hans Holbein the Younger: See that weird diagonal shape at the bottom? When you view it from a certain angle, it becomes a human skull! Holbein, being the happy chap he was, likely included it as a reminder of mortality.
5. The Arnolfini Portrait – Jan van Eyck: This painting is much more than a portrait of a merchant and his wife. That mirror on the far wall actually shows a group people entering the room. Historians believe one of them is van Eyck himself!
6. The Creation of Adam – Michelangelo: The Sistine Chapel ceiling contains tons of hidden details, none more famous than this Genesis scene. God floats on a cloud shaped exactly like a human brain — a nod to the artist’s fascination with anatomy.
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7. Panel of the Prophet Zechariah – Michelangelo: The ceiling also flaunts a major insult. With his thumb tucked between his fingers, one cherub is “flipping the fig,” the Renaissance equivalent of the middle finger. Michelangelo probably directed this at the domineering Vatican leadership.
8. Panel of David and Goliath – Michelangelo: Another hidden meaning hides in plain sight in this image of David defeating the giant. Together, their bodies form the Hebrew letter gimel, which symbolizes strength.
9. Man, Controller of the Universe – Diego Rivera: Nelson Rockefeller commissioned this epic mural but was outraged by Rivera’s inclusion of Communist figures. The tycoon destroyed it, but Rivera painted a new version, which featured Rockefeller’s father under a syphilis bacteria.
10. Primavera – Sandro Botticelli: Judging by the detail of this cryptic masterpiece, Botticelli easily could’ve been a botanist. Over 200 species of plants, rendered in pain-staking detail, are crammed throughout the painting!
11. Madonna with Saint Giovannino – Domenico Ghirlandaio: For years, conspiracy theorists claimed this painting displays a UFO floating above Mary’s shoulder. While that seems unlikely, the colorful blob could very well portray angels looking down on the Nativity from a heavenly cloud.
12. Supper at Emmaus – Caravaggio: This classic shows a resurrected Jesus revealing himself to former disciples, and there’s a neat clue proving his identity. The food basket casts a fish-shaped shadow, referencing Jesus’ miraculous multiplying of the loaves and fishes.
13. Mona Lisa – Leonardo da Vinci: There’s more than meets the eye! Imaging technology recently found Mona’s eyes are filled with almost microscopic numbers and letters. In addition to da Vinci’s initials, there are various symbolic numbers mentioned in the Bible.
14. Madame X – John Singer Sargent: The acclaimed portraitist’s original depiction of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau caused a real scandal. At first, he painted one of her dress straps slipping down her shoulder. Sargent had to update his creation, however, after it caused an uproar.
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15. View of Scheveningen Sands – Hendrick van Anthonissen: Until 2014, museum visitors had no idea why this painting showed a cluster of people at the shore. But then a conservator discovered a layer of varnish was covering up a beached whale!
16. The Blue Cloak – Pieter Bruegel the Elder: No, this isn’t Times Square during New Year’s. It’s actually a visual depiction of hundreds of Dutch proverbs and idioms. The painting brings to life catchy axioms like “He who eats fire, craps sparks.”
17. The Music Lesson – Johannes Vermeer: Although this painting seems pretty innocent, lustful undertones are practically everywhere. Despite playing an instrument called a “Virginal,” the woman is staring directly into the reflection of her teacher’s eyes. He, meanwhile, poses next to a phallic-shaped vase.
18. Young Woman Powdering Herself – Georges Seurat: Researchers discovered this woman was Seurat’s mistress, but that’s not the only bombshell. X-rays revealed the top left portion once included a self-portrait. Seurat painted over it because friends said it “looked bizarre.”
19. An Accident – L.S. Lowry: Many of the artist’s iconic “matchstick men” paintings show a bleak view of the industrial world. But the huddled crowd here was inspired by a real tragedy, in which a woman drowned herself in Manchester.
Likely the most shocking artistic hidden message came to light in 2018. Sotheby’s in London was busy preparing for an auction. This itself was nothing remarkable. After all, that was their business. But the auction that day was special…
Sotheby’s are the experts when it comes to selling priceless works of art. They have been doing it for hundreds of years, but this day was going to be particularly special and the beginning of a new chapter.
They were auctioning off a rare piece by today’s most relevant street artist: Banksy. This is one artist who probably never expected to find his work being sold off to a wealthy bidder at a private auction house.
Since the 1990s, he has made a name for himself with works that subvert artistic conventions and skewer various aspects of society. Chances are you’ve seen his work already even if you don’t know it.
Flickr / Ganzelka
Almost nobody knows who Banksy is. His real identity is a carefully guarded secret that likely will never come to light. You would think that would be something that would hamper his rising celebrity, but that’s not the case.
And even though his anonymity prevents him from doing interviews or having a social media presence, it certainly adds to his allure. Countless articles have been written about him, and even a documentary was about his work.
Many theorists name Bristol artist Robin Cunningham as the likeliest candidate for Banksy, but all the dots still don’t connect. It’s quite possible, in fact, that ‘Banksy’ may be multiple people collaborating under a single name.
Banksy is most famous for his graffiti — a copy of which was going on sale at Sotheby’s. His clever pieces go far beyond tagging his name on a brick wall. Instead, they have a biting visual message.
Flickr / Laura Munday
His minimalist works often blend in seamlessly with the urban landscape. In fact, that’s what makes them so darn compelling. They stop you in your tracks and make you look twice.
Banksy has the unique ability to transform any ordinary object into politically charged art. Sometimes he accomplishes this feat with just a few words…
So it’s no surprise that so many collectors were chomping at the bit to buy their very own Banksy. They hungrily eyed the prize as the bids climbed up to one million dollars and beyond.
These high rollers were competing to get their hands on one of Banksy’s most famous murals, Balloon Girl. Many critics consider it to be among the greatest works of art in the United Kingdom.
But this version of Balloon Girl had one feature that the original lacked. Inside the frame, Banksy secretly lined the bottom of the painting with motorized blades. What was he planning?
Well, the exact instant the painting sold — with a final price tag of $1.4 million — the booby-trapped frame shredded the painting to pieces. Nobody in attendance could wrap their minds around what had just occurred. What kind of artist would destroy his own work?
Instagram / Banksy
Just because the painting is in tatters, however, doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Like so many other famous works of art, a little bit of damage might not be as damaging to the value as you might think!
Art seller Steve Lazarides, one of the few individuals in Banksy’s inner circle, suggested that the shredded version of Balloon Girl may even be worth more than the original.
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Though some members of the art community criticized the move as a cruel prank, others are now calling it one of Banksy’s greatest demonstrations ever. Perhaps only one other stunt could rival its originality and shock value…
Banksy made headlines around the world in 2015 by curating the Dismaland installation. The site utilized dozens of pieces to construct a ‘sinister twist’ on the Disney franchise and theme parks in general.
Dismaland welcomed over 150,000 in its temporary run. Guests could enjoy — or at least tolerate — attractions such as a rundown princess castle, a museum of dangerous objects, and purposely unfair games like ‘topple the anvil with a ping pong ball.’
It’s clear that when it comes to art Banksy isn’t content to let the status quo stand. From bizarre theme parks staffed by strange characters like the ones below to destroying his own art, he’s always looking to up the ante.