A previously unseen self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh has been discovered following an X-ray scan of the reverse side of another painting.
Experts at the National Galleries of Scotland made the find when the canvas was scanned before an exhibition. The secret self-portrait was covered by layers of glue and cardboard on the back of an earlier work called ‘Head of a Peasant Woman’.
The gallery’s senior conservator Lesley Stevenson said she felt “shock” to find the Dutch artist “looking out at us”.
She added: “When we saw the X-ray for the first time, of course, we were hugely excited. This is a significant discovery because it adds to what we already know about Van Gogh’s life.”
The destitute Van Gough often re-used canvases to save money, turning them over and then working on the other side. His astounding work sold poorly during his lifetime, and his fame came only after his death in 1890, at the age of 37. The troubled painter is now among the most famous and admired in historical Western art.
‘Head of a Peasant Woman’ entered the National Gallery of Scotland (NGS) collection in 1960 as part of a gift from a prominent Edinburgh lawyer. It depicts a local woman from the town of Nuenen in the south of the Netherlands, where the artist resided from December 1883 to November 1885.
It is thought that Van Gogh might have painted the camouflaged self-portrait on the other side at a pivotal moment in his career, just after he moved to Paris and was inspired by the work of the French impressionists.
About 15 years after Van Gough’s death, ‘Head of a Peasant Woman’ was loaned to an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. It’s understood that this is where the canvas was mounted on cardboard and framed, leaving the self-portrait a mystery to be found.
‘Peasant Woman’ was ostensibly chosen for the front because it was a more “finished” image than the self-portrait on the other side. The painting changed hands several times and, in 1923, was acquired by Evelyn St Croix Fleming, whose son, Ian, became the writer of the original James Bond books.
After changing hands, the secret was secured, and in 1951, it arrived in Scotland, having entered the collection of Alexander and Rosalind Maitland, who later donated it to the NGS.
Experts at the gallery have said it may be possible to uncover the hidden self-portrait but asserted that removing the glue and cardboard will require delicate conservation work. With ‘Head of a Peasant Woman’ on the other side, extra care and research will be needed to ensure the safety of the artwork.
In the meantime, visitors to the exhibition in Edinburgh will be able to see the X-ray image first-hand through a specially-crafted lightbox.
Prof Frances Fowle, senior curator of French Art at the NGS, described the discovery as “an incredible gift for Scotland”.
She concluded: “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.”