Why the Vegetable Seller in This 450-Year-Old Painting Isn’t Smiling Anymore

Restoration revealed that a grin had been added to the original—and brought experts closer to identifying the work’s creator

View of restored painting, "The Vegetable Seller"
Experts restored the sitter's facial expression to its original state. English Heritage

In the painting, a vegetable seller perches next to a sumptuous display of her wares, baskets and bowls overflowing with produce. She dons a bright red dress and stares out at the viewer with a small smile—or at least she used to. As Mark Brown reports for the Guardian, experts at English Heritage have uncovered fascinating details about the anonymous artwork, including the addition of the subject’s grin by a past restorer.

Following a two-year restoration effort, the 450-year-old painting more closely resembles the 16th-century original. The seller’s face has been returned to a muted, enigmatic expression. What’s more, in light of new discoveries about the artwork, conservators now believe that it is linked to the influential Flemish artist Joachim Beuckelaer—if not painted by Beuckelaer himself.

Per a statement, the work had been in storage for more than 60 years and was something of a mystery to experts. It was purchased in the 18th century by the owner of Audley End, a grand country house in Essex. The painting was unsigned and in poor condition, making it difficult for modern experts to date it precisely. They theorized that it might be an 18th-century copy of an earlier work.

“The painting had a very yellow varnish on it and dirt layers,” Alice Tate-Harte, English Heritage’s collections conservator, tells the Guardian. “ … [T]here was an awful lot of overpainting on it too, so it wasn’t the beautiful object it could be.”

Why the Vegetable Seller in This 450-Year-Old Painting Isn't Smiling Anymore
The painting prior to restoration English Heritage

As the buildup of grime and paint was carefully cleaned away, the artwork’s vibrant colors and fine details started to come to light.

“There was a lot of overpaint on her face, and on her white chemise, and the apron of her skirt, and the corner,” says Tate-Harte to CNN’s Amy Woodyatt.

She adds, “We took the dirt layer off, then we took the varnish layer off, and that allowed us to see the quality of the paint below: not only the colors, but the look of the paint. You can start seeing its age, the cracks, the abrasion pattern that you see in the early Netherlandish pictures.”

Conservators also realized that a strip of canvas painted with a tower and sky was added to the original artwork in the late 18th or early 19th century—probably to make the painting fit into a square frame. Tate-Harte tells the Guardian that this was common practice before conservation techniques were “really established,” though she acknowledges that it “seems quite a crazy thing to do. Why not find a frame that fitted?”

In consultation with the painting’s current owner, conservators decided to remove the canvas strip. With the painting restored to its original condition, experts were able to note similarities to the art of Beuckelaer, who was known for creating market and kitchen scenes rich with elaborate displays of food.

Why the Vegetable Seller in This 450-Year-Old Painting Isn't Smiling Anymore
The now-removed section at the top was added to the original painting in the late 18th or early 19th century. English Heritage

The team used non-invasive infrared imaging to take a closer look at the work, finding further similarities to Beuckelaer’s technique. The technology also prompted experts to revise their theory that the painting was an 18th-century copy; now, they’ve dated the artwork to the late 16th century, which, as it happens, coincides with the period when Beuckelaer was active. After training in the studio of his uncle, the artist Pieter Aertsen, he established himself as an independent painter in Antwerp and Amsterdam.

Speaking with CNN, Tate-Harte describes the seller’s revised expression as an “improvement.”

“I think it benefits it—it’s showing that it is a 16th-century painting,” the conservator says. “She’s much more confronting the viewer—she is much more of a strong woman now, a bit less passive.”

After spending decades in storage, the painting has now returned to the walls of Audley End.

“We’re so pleased,” says Tate-Harte in the statement, “that visitors to Audley End will now be able to see such a wonderful painting restored to its former glory.”