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A police station with a haunted painting?


Allegheny City (now part of Pittsburgh) as it appeared in the late 19th century


The following story comes from the October 23, 1898 edition of the Pittsburgh Press and involves a painting of a criminal who was made to pose for the artist against his will. The painting was said to change colors-- and the convict's expression was said to change from frowning to laughing. The official explanation was that the changes were the result of inferior quality oil paint. What do you think?




A MYSTERY PICTURE: STARTLING CHANGES IN A PAINTING IN ALLEGHENY POLICE DEPT.

The Allegheny police department has a mystery picture, and the queer antics of the canvas have excited widespread curiosity. To the casual observer it is nothing more than an ordinary oil painting with very little to recommend it to the eye of the critic. Yet even a person uneducated in the mysteries of colors cannot help but observe the many changes of this picture if he but pause a few moments and study it. The countenance of the subject actually changes, and at times smiles, then assumes a hangdog look, and in a little while changes again to another.

The picture is one in oil by Charles McKeown, a well-known Allegheny sign painter, whose pictures have excited great admiration and who has achieved quite a reputation in both cities for his work in oil. It was painted in May, 1891, and is entitled "Photographing a Criminal".

The subject of the painting is George Gamble, who was arrested at the time, and, being a man well known to the police, it was decided that he pose for the occasion. He was bound in a chair with a thick hempen rope wound tightly around him and his head held back by Director John R. Murphy. Gamble, after a little consideration, concluded that he did not want his face in oil and tried hard to change his countenance so that he could not be identified by the painting. He was so obstinate that the artist had to give up the task. A photographer was called in and the prisoner's picture taken. McKeon then painted the picture from the photo.

The picture was hung in the front office, and up until a few weeks ago it was scarcely noticed. But last Wednesday, Assistant Superintendent John Glenn and a number of others were sitting in the office facing the picture, when he noticed the face change. He called Director Murphy's attention to the change and Supt. Henry Muth was also called to notice the singular incident. The three sat and watched it and, instead of the murky countenance of the convict, the face had assumed a laughing expression and remained so for fully ten minutes, when it went back to its natural position.

This has occurred daily since then and more than this the colors of the picture change daily. The drab coat of Gamble is sometimes black, sometimes green, and often white. The face assumes all colors and the shape of the hat even changes. The arms and hands change position and many times the collar, which fits the neck tightly, appears to be six sizes too large.

Mr. Glenn explains that the recent damp weather is the cause of the many changes, owing to the fact that the colors used in the paint were of a poor quality, and that the dampness has a tendency to loosen the oil and make the colors apparently flow together, and make dozens of rays and hues that do not belong to the painting. He says that when the cold weather comes around the picture will settle down to its normal condition and will be as good as ever. The colors do not flow, as explained, but, becoming soft, the pigment comes to the surface, and that causes the changes in color. Then the least softening of the materials causes the canvas to become loose and this changes the position of the lips and other parts and portions of the painting.

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