Senior Conservator Lesley Stevenson views Head of a Peasant Woman alongside an x-ray image of the hidden Van Gogh self-portrait.
A new self-portrait from Vincent van Gogh has recently been discovered by the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS). Officials feel confident that the painting—found on the verso, concealed under layers of glue and cardboard—is a hitherto unknown work of art.
X-ray image of new Vincent van Gogh self-portrait.
Vincent van Gogh, Head of a Peasant Woman, 1885.
Conservators at NGS stumbled across the self-portrait during preparatory work for the Royal Scottish Academy’s upcoming exhibition—A Taste for Impressionism: Modern French art from Millet to Matisse (July 30 – November 13, 2022). The exhibition was conceived as a way to showcase and examine how visionary Scottish collectors were during this revolutionary era of art production. The discovery of a new Van Gogh within the extant collection will surely add an unexpected yet fitting layer of intrigue and depth to this initial concept.
The find, which they hope to eventually unearth with delicate conservation work, was detected with an x-ray of Van Gogh’s Head of a Peasant Woman (1885). According to records from the Van Gogh Museum, similarly applied cardboard was removed from three self-portraits painted on the verso in 1929 by the Dutch restorer Jan Cornelis Traas. As announced in a press release from NGS: “Visitors will be able to see the amazing x-ray image for the first time through a specially crafted lightbox at the center of the display” in the upcoming exhibition.
Although Van Gogh was known to reuse canvases and even typically opted to paint new compositions on the backs of finished works rather than atop old ones, this hidden self-portrait is unusual because it was, as mentioned prior, additionally concealed.
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat (obverse: The Potato Peeler, February–March 1885), 1887. Oil on canvas. 16 x 12 1/2 in. (40.6 x 31.8 cm).
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (obverse- Still Life with Bottles and Earthenware, 1884-85), Paris, July-August 1887. Oil on canvas. 41.8 x 31.5 cm.
NGS officials suspect the new artwork was likely painted after Head of a Peasant Woman, during a critical period for Van Gogh. The artist moved to Paris in 1886 to be closer to his brother Theo. It seems the change of scenery, the stability offered by familial support, and a new proximity to innovative artists deeply impacted his work. He began rubbing elbows with the Impressionists and members of the avant-garde like Toulouse-Lautrec. Subsequently, Van Gogh began to experiment with his color pallet and broken brushwork.
Unfortunately, financial struggles hit the artist yet again when his brother left town during the summer of 1887. To save money, Van Gogh returned to painting on the back of his older canvases. It seems he primarily painted self-portraits on the backs of peasant studies that he had completed in 1885 while living in Nuenen.
As to when the self-portrait was covered, the NGS says this likely occurred: “Around 1905, when the Peasant Woman was lent to an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the decision was made to stick the canvas down on cardboard prior to framing.”
Anna Claire Mauney is Managing Editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.
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