Eerie detail found hidden in thrift shop painting: 'Can’t unsee it'

An American thrift shopper received a string of unexpected responses when she shared a picture of a newly acquired artwork to a valuation site on Facebook.

Many swooned at the ornate frame, but others focused on a particular detail of the painting. While the green-hued image initially appears to depict a field of trees, others looked deeper and saw something darker.

Beginning by staring at a small dark bird at the centre left of the painting and then drawing their field of view outwards many saw a hidden detail.

A green-tinged print of The Home of the Heron by George Inness in a frame.
Can you see the skull hidden in this painting? Source: Facebook

“Do you see a skull?,” one person immediately wrote.

This comment set off a string of colourful responses: “Yes, now I can’t unsee it.” “I don’t see a skull, but I do see a bird," someone else said.

Others took a lighter tone, with one person writing” I see a kitten”. But the majority of comments saw death. “I see a ghost around a little bird.” “Looks like a painting that would be in The Ring.”

Are skulls often hidden in artwork?

It’s not unusual for artists to hide symbols of death in artwork. The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger is one famous example, as it has a distorted skull at the bottom of that work with an anamorphic perspective.

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein is hidden (left). Detail of the anamorphic skull at the correct angle (right).
The anamorphic skull in The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein is hidden (left) until the painting is viewed at the correct angle (right). Source: Getty

Only when the viewer approaches the work at the right angle do they see it in correct proportions. Some art critics have hypothesised that it was originally supposed to be viewed while walking up a staircase, as this could have put the passerby at the correct positive to view it.

When The Ambassadors was painted in 1533, skulls were a common feature in artwork. Known as memento mori, they are an artistic trope used to remind viewers of the inevitability of death.

Is there really a skull hidden in the painting?

While some skulls are hidden with purpose, humans also often see representations in paintings that were not intended.

Observing specific images in a random or ambiguous pattern is known as pareidolia. Faces are the most common thing viewers see when looking at inanimate objects. They are often seen in houses, trees and power points. The image of Jesus was also famously seen burnt into a piece of toast.

George Inness's original The Home of the Heron. The colour is more brown.
George Inness's original The Home of the Heron. Source: Art Institute Chicago

Pareidolia is likely what Facebook users were experiencing when they responded to the thrift store purchase. One respondent correctly identified it as a print of a famous work The Home of the Heron by George Inness which hangs in Art Institute Chicago.

“The painting is characteristic of his late work, with loosely rendered detail and dim objects that seem bathed in an almost incandescent glow,” is how the AIC describes the painting.

“The picture’s blurred outlines, broad handling, and delicate, subtle tonalities, as well as the solitary presence of the heron, masterfully evoke nature’s stillness and mystery.”

While a faint outline of the skull can be seen in the original, it’s much more prominent in the discoloured original. Searches of the painting’s expert criticism did not produce any mentions of a skull, and it remains unclear whether the artist intended to include one.

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