Ottawa·Hidden Treasures

National Gallery's artistic treasure hiding in plain sight

Hundreds of thousands of visitors have passed by the large baroque painting hanging in the National Gallery of Canada, but only a small number know its secret.

Subject of Giuseppe Maria Crespi's painting underwent major transformation

There's a hidden image lurking behind Giuseppe Maria Crespi's An Allegory of the Arts, says Stephen Gritt, the National Gallery of Canada's director of conservation and research (Ryan Tumilty/CBC)

This is part of our series Hidden Treasures, where we delve into the storage rooms of museums across the National Capital Region to find out what weird and wonderful things they have tucked away there. We'll post a new story every Wednesday throughout the summer, and you can find them all on the CBC Ottawa website.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors have passed by the large baroque painting hanging in the National Gallery of Canada, but only a small number know its secret.

An Allegory of the Arts, completed in 1730 by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, is a painting within a painting. It portrays a blue-gowned woman at work at her easel, where she appears lost in the image of two figures she's created with her own brush.

But that's not how Crespi first portrayed her.

It is part of the secret life of the picture.- Stephen Gritt, National Gallery of Canada

Hidden underneath the final layer of paint is an original draft portraying an entirely different subject.

"Initially the figure of arts was a woman who wasn't doing anything. She was looking at you, the viewer," said Stephen Gritt, the museum's director of conservation and research.  

"At a certain point during the painting, he clearly decided he needed to be more serious about it and he added a few years and a few pounds, and most importantly, he made her focus on the act of painting and not you, the viewer."

The subject's focus on her own work is key, Gritt said.

"The changes he made were to make her face away from you, to ignore you and to make her fully engaged in the art of painting."

X-ray images of the painting revealed an entirely different subject underneath the final work. (Ryan Tumilty/CBC)

The gallery found the woman behind the woman using X-ray technology when it purchased the painting in 1996.

Gritt said other paintings in the gallery's collection had similar false starts, but the Crespi is really a window into the artist's thinking.

"What you are really looking at is the way someone's brain is working," he said.

Stephen Gritt, the director of conservation at the National Gallery of Canada, reveals what secrets are hiding beneath this Giuseppe Maria Crespi painting. 1:51

He said feminist art historians really enjoy this story.

"It is a dead white male who seems to be taking a female work more seriously," he said. "It is part of the secret life of the picture."

In this earlier draft the subject is younger, thinner and returning the viewer's gaze, rather than focused on her art. (Ryan Tumilty/CBC)