Hidden Faces: Vincent van Gogh's Secret Self-Portrait
Vincent van Gogh, one of the most famous figures in 19th-century Western art history, is still surprising us. According to the National Galleries of Scotland, a previously hidden self-portrait of van Gogh has been discovered. The painting, discovered using X-ray technology, is painted on the back of another of van Gogh’s famous impressionist paintings, Head of a Peasant Woman .
This discovery, while incredible, isn’t the first of van Gogh’s secret paintings to be discovered, and it may not be the last. Conservators search endlessly for these hidden paintings, a known habit of the famed artist, especially when he was low on money. So what does the portrait look like, how exactly was it found, and what does it mean in relation to his other works?
Senior Conservator Lesley Stevenson views Head of a Peasant Woman alongside an X-ray image of the hidden Vincent van Gogh self-portrait. ( National Galleries of Scotland )
The Tragic History of Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh was born in the Netherlands in 1853 to a relatively well-to-do family. As a child, he began drawing at an early age, a hobby that led to him taking up the job of art dealer as a teenager. As an art dealer, he would try to sell his own pieces or trade them for others, bringing some mild local attention to his work. As he traveled for his work, he became exceptionally depressed, which led him to turn to religion for comfort and work as a Belgian missionary for several years.
Failing to find comfort in his missionary work, van Gogh returned home to his family and took his art a step further. He began working on paintings to trade and sell locally while being supported financially by his brother Theo. Most of these paintings were still lifes and landscapes, though he eventually developed his own style of impressionism in his oil paintings that he applied to all his pieces. As he expanded his still life work, he eventually started painting specific items in repetition, such as broad fields, sunflowers, and self-portraits. He was known for including many shades of yellow throughout his later paintings.
Though van Gogh is now known as one of the most famous painters in art history, he was not actually famous for his work while he was alive. Van Gogh was known to struggle with mental illness including depression, hallucinations, nightmares, and other psychotic episodes. It was during one of these psychotic episodes that he cut off a large part of his left ear. As a result, he was often put in the hands of local psychiatric hospitals that attempted to care for him. These multiple episodes resulted in people believing that his art was the work of a madman, rather than a brilliant artist.
Unfortunately, this psychiatric treatment was ultimately unsuccessful. In the end, van Gogh committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a revolver. After his death, those that came across his many paintings began to view him as a harshly-judged, unrecognized genius. His artwork came to be seen as some of the most important artwork created during his era.
Self-portrait with Straw Hat, by Vincent van Gogh. This self-portrait is currently housed at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and is one of many self-portraits he painted during his lifetime. ( Public domain )
The Many Faces of Vincent van Gogh
According to recent discoveries, it is estimated that van Gogh painted somewhere between 35 and 40 self-portraits during his lifetime. However, this figure is based on the paintings that have been found so far. He may in fact have painted more, such as the recently-discovered portrait which was uncovered by curators in Edinburgh.
Though it may seem strange for a single artist to paint so many self-portraits, van Gogh’s reasoning behind the portraits is actually quite simple. As a young painter, he wanted to learn how to paint people without taking the time of strangers. To practice, he decided to paint himself by looking in the mirror, as he could practice with his own face and take as much time as he needed.
Observation of these portraits reveals van Gogh’s many developments as an artist, as his skills and techniques sharpened with time. His self-portraits were often experimental, and if he liked a technique he used on a self-portrait, he would typically use it with a future painting with a different subject. These experimental portraits were his primary practice in French impressionism, a style he adopted heavily in later pieces.
Head of a Peasant Woman, by Vincent van Gogh. ( National Galleries of Scotland )
A Once-In-A-Lifetime Discovery
The discovery of Vincent van Gogh’s most recent hidden self-portrait was not intentional. The portrait was discovered during a routine X-ray, a procedure that is normally done on famous art pieces to establish authenticity and provide insight into the materials used during its making.
The painting was discovered on the back of another of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, Head of a Peasant Woman , which was being processed to use in an upcoming exhibition on impressionism. The portrait was discovered hidden under several layers of cardboard and glue on the back of this painting.
Upon performing the X-ray, conservators were shocked to discover that the scan had barely picked up the Head of a Peasant Woman image. Instead, the X-rays mostly responded to the heavy lead white paint Vincent van Gogh used to paint his own face in the self-portrait which had been hiding for decades.
Conservators and art historians at the museum confirmed that Vincent van Gogh used to regularly reuse his canvases to save money. This usually meant painting on the back of an already-painted canvas, it sometimes meant painting over an old painting he did not care for.
Senior Curator Frances Fowle views Head of a Peasant Woman by Vincent van Gogh. ( National Galleries of Scotland )
In this case, the painting was on the back of the canvas but had been covered by glue and supportive cardboard to hang the piece. Conservators believe that this was likely done in 1905 when van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Jo Bonger, lent the piece to an exhibition in Amsterdam. Curators at the time may have thought it to simply be an incomplete piece that was deemed acceptable to cover.
It is believed the portrait one of the many self-portraits Vincent van Gogh produced in 1887, five of which were also found on the back of other paintings. They are now on display at the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands.
X-ray image of Vincent van Gogh self-portrait. ( National Galleries of Scotland )
What Now? Conservator Next Steps
Because the portrait is currently hidden from view, underneath layers of glue and cardboard, any attempts to reveal the portrait must be done carefully and slowly by professional conservators. Any error in removing the glue or cardboard could accidentally destroy it, which would serve as a great blow to those who discovered the painting.
While the museum finds a team of conservators willing and able to attempt this challenging task, art lovers will be able to view the X-ray of the portrait on display at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh using a special lightbox, where it has been included within the exhibition entitled Taste for Impressionism , running from the 30th July to 13th November 2022. This is an incredible opportunity for any fans of Vincent van Gogh’s work able to visit Edinburgh over the coming months. With any luck, perhaps we’ll soon get some good news on the painting’s big reveal. Paintings are meant to be seen in their full glory, after all.
Top image: Section of X-ray image of Vincent van Gogh self-portrait discovered at the back of another van Gogh painting housed in Edinburgh. Source: National Galleries of Scotland
By Lex Leigh
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