An Expert Looked Closer At A 100-Year-Old Masterpiece And Found It Was Hiding An Astounding Secret

A man creeps through an Australian museum, a flashlight illuminating his path. In this eerily quiet space, there’s no one around but him. Suddenly, though, the man stops. Something has caught his eye in one of the paintings. And when he finally figures out what it is he’s looking at, the truth will completely stun the art world.

That room the man was exploring is in the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne. And the picture he was examining is one of Australia’s most famous works of art. It’s been in the NGV since 1906, having been left to the museum by a charity all those years ago.

The man lurking around was not a thief. He was Michael Varcoe-Cocks, who works in the museum as its head of conservation. He’s an expert in paintings from the second half of the 19th century, meaning he can tell you a lot about the works on display. But even with his vast knowledge of art, Varcoe-Cocks couldn’t have predicted what he would find.

The picture that had caught Varcoe-Cocks’ eye? That was The Pioneer by the Australian artist Frederick McCubbin. The work – created in 1904 – is considered to be one of the great Australian paintings. The NGV even goes so far as to describe The Pioneer as a “masterpiece.”

Varcoe-Cocks is no doubt familiar with The Pioneer, and he’s likely run his eye over it many times over his years at the museum. But in the dark gallery, his flashlight caught a detail he’d never noticed before. And after the expert had gotten over his shock, he began to make sense of what he was seeing. Turns out that this McCubbin was crafty in more ways than one...