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Small paintings hidden inside old books

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  September 11, 2013 09:27 AM

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The art world was preoccupied last week with a newly discovered van Gogh, but librarians at the University of Iowa Special Collections & University Archives recently had a neat find of their own: delicate landscape paintings hidden just inside the margins of four 19th-century books. The books are a series of volumes on the four seasons by Scottish writer Robert Mudie that were published in 1837. Sometime later, an unidentified artist adorned each book using a technique known as fore-edge painting, in which the book is fanned open using a special press, which allows the artist to create paintings (in this case, landscapes depicting the seasons) that unfold across the margins of the pages. Fore-edge painting has a magical quality because it's so discreet: When a book is closed, you can't tell the painting is there, meaning the paintings can sit on dusty library shelves for decades without being discovered. That's what happened at the University of Iowa, where the fore-edge paintings avoided notice (despite being documented in the library's catalogue) until a student brought them to the attention of librarian Colleen Theisen.

"They're kind of a secret," says Theisen. "They're one of a kind."

You can see GIFs of the four fore-edge paintings below (from the top: winter, spring, summer, fall). You can read more about the University of Iowa's Special Collections and Archives on its excellent Tumblr. The Boston Public Library also has a number of fore-edge paintings in its collection, which you can see here.





H/T The Millions

Images courtesy of the University of Iowa Special Collections & University Archives/Colleen Theisen.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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