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"Mr Harriman and Mrs O'Reilly Caught in the Act"

Joachim Antonisz Whitewhale

The Dutch artist Whitewhale explored a little-trodden pathway in Depressionism: evidentiary paintings for "house dicks" specializing in infidelity cases. It was well-paid, although strenuous work. The artist would accompany the detective, the hotel superintendent with a master key, and the "heavies" hired for protection to the hotel room, which had been under surveillance for a few days.

Then the crew would burst into the room, where Whitewhale would quickly set up his easel and make some preliminary sketches, which he would finish later in his studio. He would include not only the principals in the little drama, but the detective and the others as well as witnesses to their presence. (Children, nicknamed cherubs, were often employed in late 16th- and early 17th-century hotel busts, as their light weight and agility made it easy for them to zip up to the top of a bed canopy and fling open the curtains, as the little cherub in this painting is doing.)

For years scholars wondered why the detective and other members of his entourage were naked during the intrusions, seemingly making them more vulnerable. Then in the 18th century Herman Melville, the leading authority on the painter, uncovered an old letter from Whitewhale to a friend in which the mystery was resolved.

“... on the job last night, for instance, the infidelitor defended the infidelitee and attempted to capture one of the detective's henchpersons for purpose or purposes unknown. Luckily we were prepared for that eventuality, having stripped and thoroughly slavered ourselves with olive oil at the insistence of the detective, who stressed once again that it gave us proof against seizure." ~ H Melville, Lobby Dick, or The Whitewhale Chronicles

Although quite talented at what he was doing, the painter felt increasingly alienated from the world of fine art. He became a nuisance during his frequent visits to the Louvre in Paris, where the guards would find him in a corner of the Grand Masters Hall sobbing uncontrollably. His final disgrace came when he attempted to hide a painting under his smock and slip out of the museum. Unfortunately he had chosen Hans van Aachen's "Allegory of Peace, Art and Abundance", which at roughly 6½ feet by 4½ feet, proved too conspicuous for even a French guard not to notice.

His last work, a mural done with a burnt stick on the wall of his cell at the Artist and Models Lunatic Asylum in Antwerp, was lost in the Great Fire of 1638 along with the artist.


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