When examining “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbeinthe the Younger, it’s hard to believe that someone could have enough skill to paint the elongated skull that’s hidden on the floor between the two men’s feet. There is also a hidden crucifix on the top left. It looks like something done on modern-day Adobe Photoshop, rather than the 1500’s. The backstory of this painting is that the man on the left, Jean de Dinteville, was on his second diplomatic mission to England from France. On the right is his friend Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur. There is a math book open on the table, which has a page open to division. This symbolizes the divide that happened when King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church.
“Netherlandish Proverbs” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The painting “Netherlandish Proverbs” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is almost like looking at “Where’s Waldo”. There is so much going on, it would take a long time to actually examine the entire painting. All of the characters in the painting represent some sort of proverb. For example, “Birds of a feather flock together”, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play”, “swimming against the tide,” “banging one’s head against a brick wall” and so much more. There are 112 proverbs hidden in the painting in total. If you want to put yourself up to the challenge of figuring them all out on your own, beware. There are many Dutch proverbs that are forgotten in modern times, or never really made their way over to the United States. Like “she puts a blue cloak on her husband”, which means that the wife is cheating on him.
“View of Scheveningen Sands” by Hendrick van Anthonissen
For 140 years, “View of Scheveningen Sands” looked a lot different from the image you see above. It was hanging in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England from 1878 to 2014. For all that time, the painting just looked like a group of people staring at nothing. But in reality, they were all staring at a beached whale! In 2014, a conservator named Shan Kuange was restoring the painting, and she removed a coat of yellow varnish. This revealed the hidden beach whale, and it totally solved the mystery of what these people were looking at. Kuang said the crude overpaint, which filled in the sea and shore where the whale had been, could have been added “because the presence of a dead animal was considered offensive” in the 18th or early 19th centuries.
Originally painted in 1884, this was a portrait of a socialite from Paris named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. She was an American who moved to Paris who became famous for her beauty. Rumor has it that she had many love affairs, and that she used her looks to climb the social ladder. In the original painting, the jeweled strap of her dress is slipping off her shoulder. When the painting was done, Virginie was thrilled, and she couldn’t wait to see the public’s reaction at the Paris Salon. However, the art was seen as beeing far too sexual, and it caused a huge scandal in upper-class society. Sargent painted over the straps, and renamed the painting to “Madame X” to protect her identity. This was so embarrassing for him, he actually had to move to London to escape the scandal!
During his Blue Period, artist Pablo Picasso painted “The Old Guitarist” in 1903, which has been considered one of his greatest works. But in 1998, art historians used an infrared camera to study the painting. They realized that Picasso had actually painted over another painting, which featured the image of a woman. As the years went on, the paint began to fade. If you look closely, you can see the woman’s face above the old man’s neck. Picasso painted this after one of his best friends, Casagemas, took his own life. In 1902, Picasso was essentially penniless, and struggled financially. So he really sympathized with people who were ill, homeless, and impoverished. “The Old Guitarist” represents what it’s like to live in poverty and emotional turmoil.
The actual meaning of “Primavera” by Sandro Botticelli has been a subject of debate among art historians for years. It has been called “the most controversial painting in the world.” But what most people can agree on is that it celebrates the beginning of spring. There are several mythological figures in the painting, but the characters don’t match any known story. However, many art historians believe that it depicts the many stages of spring from right to left. The hidden “secret” of the painting is that there are over 200 different species of plants scattered throughout the painting. This would have been painstaking work to accurately depict all of these plants into a single painting. If we could speak to Botticelli today and ask him for the true meaning of “Primavera”, it’s likely that we would learn even more hidden secrets about this paintings than anyone ever anticipated.
At first glance, “The Music Lesson” by Johannes Vermeer seems to be an innocent image of a young woman learning how to play the piano. But in reality, it’s full of hidden symbols of sexuality. At first, it appears as though she is looking down at the keys. But if you look in the mirror, you can see that her face is turned, and her eyes locked with the gaze of her instructor. There are also small hidden symbols throughout the painting, like the wine on the table that is meant to be an aphrodisiac. There is also an instrument on the floor that apparently symbolizes the phallic symbol. Probably the most telling was the Latin inscription hidden in the painting that said, “‘Music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow.’ This painting was so sought-after, it became a part of the British Royal Collection Trust.
“Madonna with Saint Giovannino” by Domenico Ghirlandaio
One of the biggest reasons why people are talking about “Madonna with Saint Giovannino” by Domenico Ghirlandaio is because it’s speculated to have a hidden UFO painted in the background. Alien enthusiasts believe that this is proof that there was some sort of alien sighting way back in the 15th century. Other people believe that the flying object is meant to represent a passage from the Gospel of Luke that says, “Shepherds abiding in the field keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, an angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them.”
At the time it was painted, “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli was shocking, because of its use of nudity when depicting the goddess. However, there are many art historians who believe that he was even more bold than that. Many believe that the seashell is supposed to symbolize female genitalia. Just like his work “Primavera”, there is some debate over the deeper meaning of “The Birth of Venus”, because there is no record written by Botticelli explaining his work. But many scholars believe that the two paintings were commissioned by the Medici family. It’s likely that there are more secrets hidden in this painting, if only we could figure out how to interpret it properly.
Just like the famous story from the Bible, this painting from the Sistine Chapel depicts the battle of David and Goliath. Earlier on this list, we already mentioned how Michaelangelo formed his figures into various shapes of body parts. This time, though, David’s stance is in the shape of the Hebrew word “gimel”. This means strength, and it can also represent “reward and punishment”. That works perfectly for this Bible story. At the time, Michelangelo had become interested in Judaism, and even painted the proportions of the ceiling that match those of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The word gimel was hidden there, meant to find and spread the peace and love between Judaism and Christianity.
At first glance, the painting called “Young Woman Powdering Herself” seems like a straight-forward portrait of a woman putting on makeup. But when you look at the painting under an X-ray, it reveals that the flower in the top left corner used to contain a hidden self-portrait of Seurat. According to legend, a friend saw this original version, and told him that it looked very strange. So he took his friend’s advice, and painted over the flower. Another hidden secret about this painting is that the woman is actually Madeleine Knobloch, Seurat’s 20-year-old mistress. He had never tried to paint any other self-portraits into his paintings like that in the history of his work. So clearly, this was some sort of secret homage to their relationship.
One of the most famous Salvador Dali paintings in the world is “The Persistence of Memory”, which features very surreal-looking clocks that are melting. A lot of people think that there must be some deep meaning behind the melting clocks. But in reality, they were based off of melting Camembert cheese. Dali once said that the clocks, “are nothing other than the tender, extravagant and solitary paranoiac-critical Camembert of time and space.” Dali would purposely give himself psychotic hallucinations by using drugs so that he could get into this state of being, and come up with completely insane works of art.
“Supper at Emmaus” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
In the 1601 painting “Supper at Emmaus” by Caravaggio, it depicts the scene in the Bible where Jesus comes back from the dead, and reveals himself to his disciples Luke and Cleopas at an Inn. There is a shadow cast in the basket of fruit. But if you look closely at the wicker, there is the Ichthys emblem, which looks like a fish. (In modern times, a lot of people refer to the Ichthys emblem as the “Jesus Fish”, which is famously put all over t-shirts and bumper stickers.) This is popularly believed to be a reference to when Jesus magically fed a huge crowd of people with just a few fish.
The famous painting “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh was painted while he was living in a mental hospital. While it’s truly beautiful, many art historians attribute the swirls and the style of painting to his mental state. But in a 2014 TED Talk, a scientist named Natalya St. Clair revealed the hidden genius behind the painting. These swirls are actually a representation of an extremely complicated mathematical concept called “turbulent flow”. During her speech, St. Clair explains, “In 2004, using the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists saw the eddies of a distant cloud of dust and gas around a star, and it reminded them of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night. That motivated scientists to study Van Gogh’s paintings in detail and when they did, they discovered that there is a distinct pattern of turbulent fluid structures hidden in many of Van Gogh’s paintings.”
So far on this list, we have gone over paintings. But sculptures like Michelangelo’s “David” hold some hidden secrets as well. In 2007, the “Digital Michelangelo Project” from Stanford University discovered that if you look at the statue from below, David looks calm and confident. But when you look at the statue from above, he looks very tense, because he is getting ready to battle the giant Goliath. But that’s not all, if you look closely, you will notice that David’s right hand is very small, and out of proportion to the rest of his body.
At first glance, Vincent van Gogh’s “Patch of Grass” looks simple enough. It looks like grass sprinkled with colorful wildflowers from the countryside. But in 2008, scientists used an X-ray to examine the painting, and they discovered that there was a portrait of a peasant woman hidden underneath the grass. This was actually very common for Vincent Van Gogh’s early works. He was very poor, and wouldn’t have had a lot of money to buy new canvas. So at least one third of his early pieces actually have hidden paintings underneath them. Another example of this was from a painting called “Head of a Peasant Woman”. Just recently, in 2022, they discovered with X-rays that there was a hidden self-portrait of Van Gogh underneath.
“The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch
Here is yet another painting that reminds me of “Where’s Waldo”. Artist Hieronymus Bosch created “The Garden of Earthly Delights” between 1490 and 1510. Yes- it took him literally 20 years to finish this masterpiece. There is so much to look at in this painting, that hidden messages were found as late as 2014, when a college student discovered hidden musical notes. In the lower left hand corner, there is a musical score tattooed on someone’s butt. When you play the music, it’s actually very creepy. In case you were wondering, of course there is a recording of it online, and you can listen to it here.
“Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels” by Clara Peeters
At first glance, the painting by Clara Peeters called “Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels” seems like a very typical still-life. You can see the various assortment of lunch time snacks laid out on the table. But if you look closely at the pewter lid of the jug in the center of the painting, you just might be able to see that Clara Peeters included her hidden self-portrait there. This is actually more impressive than you may think, because she would have had to paint in miniature in order to pull this off as well as she did.
When he was just 19 years old living in Paris, Pablo Picasso painted “The Blue Room”. It’s considered to be one of his earliest great masterpieces. In 2014, scientists used an X-ray to examine the painting, and found a hidden portrait of a man wearing a bowtie and resting his chin on his hand. No one knows who this man is, but we know that it is not a self-portrait. Some people speculate that it could be an art dealer named Ambroise Vollard, who was the host of Picasso’s first art show. Since he was young and impoverished, it’s really not surprising that he would reuse a canvas for a new project.
The idea that artist used mirrors for their self-portraits seems pretty obvious. But in 2001, an artist named David Hockney worked together with a physicist named Charles Falso to “discover” that Rembrandt and many of the other Old Masters used curved mirrors and lenses to create their self-portraits. In 2016, the Journal of Optics explained even further how this could have been achieved. These mirror and lenses could be used to project the image onto the canvas, so Rembrandt could literally trace the real-life image. If this is true, it sort of takes away from the “genius” behind his incredibly life-like self portraits. However, many artists use tracing to help create their works of art, and very few actually work freehand in the way you would imagine.
Like many other artists we have mentioned already on this list, Edgar Degas was yet another painter who was forced to paint over old canvases when money was tight. In 2016, Australian researchers discovered a hidden painting behind “Portrait of a Woman”. Through x-ray technology, they were able to uncover a secret portrait of a woman named Emma Dobigny, who frequently sat as a model for Degas’ portraits as well as other artists at the time. Her face was flipped upside-down when it was re-used for his new painting. It’s honestly stunning, and a shame that he decided to paint over it. The painting of “Portrait of a Woman” still hangs in the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Australia.
One of the most famous paintings in the world is “The Scream” by Edvard Munch from 1893. It features a man with his hands on his face, screaming into oblivion. In the painting itself, Munch wrote a secret message that said, “Can only have been painted by a madman.”in the upper left hand corner. Art scholars believe that he wrote that on his painting after his first exhibit, which was scrutinized by critics very harshly. This actually may have been a quote from one of the nasty comments he received for his work. And it’s true that Edvard Munch suffered from mental illness, because he was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown several years later, in 1908. Munch once wrote, “For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety, which I have tried to express in my art.”
Originally created in 1885, “Head of a Peasant Woman” was set to premiere in an exhibit at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2022. They noticed that the back of the painting was covered by layers of cardboard and glue. Using x-ray technology, they were able to find a hidden painting, which they believe to be one of Van Gogh’s earliest self portraits. When this painting went up for its exhibit, they used a special light box to help people see the x-ray so that they could experience the hidden painting for themselves. The museum is considering trying to remove the cardboard and glue to get a better view of the portrait, but it’s a delicate and time-consuming process.