A Hidden Van Gogh Self-Portrait Has Been Discovered Behind An Earlier Painting

Art museums all work to deliver the finest displays all year round, but happening upon a previously unknown self-portrait by none other than Vincent van Gogh is not something anyone could expect through their entire career. And yet, that’s exactly what’s happened over at The National Galleries Of Scotland.

In what’s thought to be a first for a UK institution, the self-portrait was found hiding beneath another painting that had been on display in the National Galleries Of Scotland’s collection for over 50 years.

Van Gogh self-portrait
Image: NGS Press Office

As art conservators examined Van Gogh’s 1885 painting Head Of A Peasant Woman, which was due to go on display at the A Taste For Impressionism exhibition later this month at the Royal Scottish Academy, they found – using an x-ray, no less – this unknown self-portrait.

Those who planned to visit the exhibition, which runs in Edinburgh from July 30 – November 13, can thank their lucky stars, as they’ll be among the first to view this spectacular revelation in the flesh. How? Through the power of x-ray, of course — the gallery will display the painting by using a specially crafted lightbox.

Image: Neil Hanna Photography

Concealed on the back of Head Of Peasant Women, the self-portrait of the Dutch impressionist master was covered with glue and cardboard, thought to be protecting the painting ahead of an early exhibition. Van Gogh was known to often reuse canvases, and it seems this self-portrait was lost in time… until now. (On a side note, how many art collectors do you reckon are currently moving like lightning to get the reverse of their van Gogh paintings checked out?)

Experts say it may be possible to uncover the self-portrait, but removing the glue and cardboard will take tremendous amounts of care and precision, so we may have to wait a little while to see it fully out in the open. Until that point, we’ll have to make do with the x-ray, and who are we to turn up our noses at a painting by the great van Gogh in any form?

Image: Neil Hanna Photography

Professor Frances Fowle, Senior Curator of French Art at the National Galleries of Scotland, said: “Moments like this are incredibly rare. We have discovered an unknown work by Vincent van Gogh, one of the most important and popular artists in the world.

“What an incredible gift for Scotland, and one that will forever be in the care of the National Galleries. We are very excited to share this thrilling discovery in our big summer exhibition A Taste for Impressionism, where the x-ray image of the self-portrait will be on view for all to see.”

While the condition of the painting is currently unknown, it can be traced back to a pivotal moment in van Gogh’s career, when he took influence from French impressionists after moving to Paris. If it is fully revealed, the self-portrait will join a group of a multitude of van Gogh paintings on the back of canvases from the same period, others of which can be viewed in New York and Amsterdam, among other locations.

The Head of a Peasant Woman, Vincent Van Gogh, 1885
Image: The Head of a Peasant Woman, Vincent Van Gogh, 1885 (NGS Press Office)

Head Of A Peasant Woman has been in the NGS collection since 1960. A local woman from Nuenen, a town in the south of the Netherlands when van Gogh lived between December 1883 to November 1883, is the subject of the painting; and the brushstrokes and colour palette is thought to take influence from French realist painters such as Jean-François Millet. Not only is it a painting of striking beauty but, as has just been discovered, it would later teach us that there can always be more than meets the eye.