A Dutch painting from the 17th century showing a seascape was recently restored, revealing a huge feature that was previously hidden.

The beach scene in “View of Scheveningen Sands,” painted by Hendrick van Anthonissen around 1630, depicted a few groups of people and boats on a beach in the Netherlands when it came to the Fitzwilliam Museum in the late 1800s from a benefactor. Earlier this year though, Shan Kuang, a student at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, was cleaning the painting and found a portion that had been painted over.

View of Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen. (Image source: Fitzwilliam Museum)

View of Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen. (Image source: Fitzwilliam Museum)

“It seemed a very unassuming painting, depicting a calm beach scene set in winter,” Kuang said.

But a closer look and subsequent refurbishing revealed a beached whale.

“As conservators, we take off the resin varnish that was applied to protect and saturate the paint. The varnish yellows and darkens with time,” Kuang said in a news release from Cambridge University. “As I worked across the surface a man appeared — and then next to him a shape that looked like a sail. By this time I could also make out an area of the sea which had been painted more crudely than the rest of the ocean. It was a thick layer of repaint covering a large section of original artwork. At the end of the treatment, the whale had returned as a key component of the composition, just as the artist had intended.”

A look at the restored image. (Image source: Fitzwilliam Museum)

A look at the restored painting. (Image source: Fitzwilliam Museum)

Before uncovering the whale, the conservators first did their due diligence to make sure the overpainting wasn’t done by the artist himself. Only after that and with permission from the museum creators was the overpainting removed.

“Removing repaint has its uncertainties: you don’t always know how easily the paint can be removed or the condition of the original painting beneath the overpaint. Fortunately, the whale only had a few damages and was overall in good condition,” Kaung said. “I was able to remove the overpainting by scraping with a scalpel and using carefully chosen solvents. I had to proceed very gently and often work under the microscope to ensure no damage was done to the painting. It was very satisfying to see the whale slowly appearing.”

Why the whale was painted over to begin with remains a mystery.

“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,” Kuang said, noting it appears to have been painted in the 18th or 19th century. 

Watch Kuang talk about the discovery:

The painting is on display at the Fitzwilliam’s gallery of the Dutch Golden Age, which opened this week.

(H/T: Daily Mail)