A self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh, more than a hundred years old, has been discovered on the back of another painting by the Dutch painter by a Scottish museum, an “incredibly rare” find that will open to the public from the end of the month.
This discovery was made possible by an X-ray examination of Van Gogh’s 1885 painting “Portrait of a Peasant Woman”. The self-portrait was discovered on the back of the work, covered by layers of glue and cardboard that appeared to have been added prior to an early 20th-century exhibition.
It shows a seated, bearded man with a hat and a scarf around his neck. You can clearly see his left ear, which Van Gogh cut off in 1888 after a heated argument with Gauguin in Arles (France).
“When we first saw radio we were obviously super excited,” says Lesley Stevenson, curator at the National Galleries of Scotland, pointing out that “a great discovery like this only happens once or twice in a curator’s life”.
“Moments like this are incredibly rare,” said Frances Fowle, the galleries’ curator, who specializes in French art. “We have discovered an unknown work by Vincent Van Gogh, one of the most important and popular artists in the world,” she enthused. The museum previously had only three works by the painter.
Separate the two images?
Van Gogh (1853-1890) is known for reusing canvases to save money, especially early in his career. He turned the canvas over and painted on the other side. In 1885 he was living in the Netherlands and his style was evolving five years after he had enrolled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels.
The self-portrait would have been painted somewhat later, influenced by his installation in Paris in 1886 and his discovery of the Impressionists.
The X-ray study had been carried out as part of preparations for an exhibition entitled ‘A taste For Impressionism’ which opens on 30 July at the Scottish National Gallery – part of the Museums of the National Galleries of Scotland – until 13 November by Van Gogh, Degas, Gauguin and Monet.
The key piece will be the self-portrait reproduced through X-rays.
The experts are considering how to separate the two paintings after removing the glue and the cardboard, an extremely delicate job so as not to risk damaging the “Portrait of a Peasant Woman”.
Van Gogh, a tormented painter who suffered from mental illness in his later years and was hardly recognized in his lifetime, died in France at the age of 37 after shooting himself in the chest.
His work includes more than 2,000 paintings, drawings and sketches. He regularly painted self-portraits, 37 of which are known to date, reflecting the development of his art.
In 2021, his famous painting Wheat Stacks, painted in Arles in 1888, fetched $35.85 million at auction at Christie’s in New York, an auction record for the artist.