Secret van Gogh self-portrait discovered through X-ray of another painting
The Edinburgh Museum announced its exciting discovery this week after X-rays showed van Gogh had painted a man’s head on the back of an 1885 painting entitled ‘Head of a Peasant Woman’. The image of someone who looked a lot like Vincent had most likely been covered with cardboard by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, his younger brother Theo’s wife, in 1905 when she sent “Head of a Peasant Woman” to an important exhibition in Amsterdam.
The painting was later acquired by Evelyn Fleming on the advice of her lover, the Welshman Painter Augustus John. Little did she know she was buying two van Goghs for the price of one. (Fleming’s son – by her husband – was Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond.)
Vincent van Gogh’s early work was mediocre. This exhibition shows how he grew up
Everything about van Gogh fascinates us. The reasons can seem bottomless. What is amazing is that even after every aspect of his life has been subjected to a centuries-long barrage of science and archives, we remain in the dark about so many things.
For example, did he commit suicide, or was he murdered, as his most recent biographers claim? If he was mentally ill, what exactly was his illness? What medications did he take to treat his problems and how did this or his illness affect his art? What exactly made him decide to cut off part of his ear and give it to a prostitute in Arles, southern France?
After this latest revelation, I have even more questions and I know I’m not alone.
For example, why was the self-portrait covered with cardboard? Was there anything that van Gogh-Bonger thought we shouldn’t see – or did she simply know that van Gogh himself considered it unfinished and unworthy of being exhibited? (Remember: for most of his career, the world had been telling him all he painted was not worth exhibiting.)
Van Gogh-Bonger’s husband Theo, the art dealer who was Vincent’s financial and psychological lifeline, died six months after Vincent. Van Gogh-Bonger, who had not known both brothers for long, was left not only with a little boy named Vincent (he was born six months before his namesake died at the age of 37), but also with hundreds of unsold ones Van Gogh painting.
According to Martin Bailey, a Van Gogh expert writing for The Art Newspaper, van Gogh-Bonger probably covered the back of the “Peasant Woman’s Head” (and thus the self-portrait) to make the painting safer before framing and mailed it to the Amsterdam exhibition.
At the time, Head of a Peasant Woman – a bold, boldly painted portrait by Gordina de Groot – would have been considered the more important work. Because it was associated with The Potato Eaters, the painting that van Gogh considered his most significant achievement to date.
He had painted Head of a Peasant Woman in 1885 in Nuenen, the Dutch town to which his parents had recently moved. When he arrived in Nuenen in late 1883, relations with his family were strained. But van Gogh chose to stay because he was in love with the landscape, the local people and their down to earth hard life. He had read Emile Zola’s great novel “Germinal” about the rural underclass and was captivated Paintings of farm workers by his hero Jean-Francois Millet.
In March 1885 his father died suddenly of a heart attack. Van Gogh stayed in Nuenen and became particularly close to a peasant family, the de Groots. “When I was leaving [their] Tonight I found people eating in the light of the little window under the lamp,” he wrote to Theo in early May. “Oh, it was incredibly beautiful.”
The two women in the tableau, he added, were “almost exactly the same color, like dark green soap.” He wanted to paint her. Young Gordina de Groot was one of those two women. She sat for several van Gogh paintings. When she later became pregnant, van Gogh was accused by the village sexton of being responsible.
The painter denied this, saying he knew from Gordina himself who the father was (a member, he claimed, of the priestly community). But because the sacristan warned locals not to sit for van Gogh and directly warned the painter not to be “too familiar with the people below him [his] Bahnhof” and because his studio was very close to the sacristan’s house, the situation remained difficult and van Gogh eventually left Nuenen for Antwerp in November 1885 and for Paris early the next year.
Apparently he took the portrait of Gordina de Groot with him. Given the new discovery Experts suspect that two years later in Paris he used the back of the canvas to paint the self-portrait just revealed by X-rays.
Monet’s tremendous obsession
Van Gogh actually painted about 20 self-portraits during his time in Paris and even more after moving to Arles. It was expensive to hire models; his own face was free and he could try things on himself without having to justify it. But he was certainly also fascinated by his own developing identity as a painter. When he wasn’t using self-portraits to boost his confidence, he was definitely expressing curiosity about the strange (and so far unsuccessful) new life he’d chosen. Some of his experiments worked. Some certainly don’t.
X-rays have revealed other paintings – for example a semi-nude and a standing nude – behind some of van Gogh’s Parisian self-portraits, including at least two in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Practice suggests that he lacked the canvas and that perhaps he did not care about preserving what he used to paint. What’s interesting is that in this case he didn’t paint over Gordina’s head, but preserved her image and simply painted himself on the back. Was there more to their relationship than we know?
In October 1887, shortly after painting the newly discovered self-portrait (if the dating is correct), van Gogh wrote to his sister Willemien asking for news of the de Groots. “How did the deal go?” he asked, referring to Gordina’s pregnancy. “Has Sien [Gordina] marry her cousin? And did your child survive?”
Indeed the child lived, a son – he was born October 20, 1885 – but at the time Gordina remained unmarried. (Presumably van Gogh asked about her cousin because he was the one most likely to give the baby the protection of his name.)
But as it turns out, painting on the back of canvases was not unprecedented for van Gogh. According to Bailey, three other Nuenen paintings were found to be double-sided after Dutch restorer Jan Cornelius Traas removed the cardboard backing in 1929. In any case, portraits have been discovered. Bailey also reports that “it has long been suspected that there might be something on the hidden side of ‘a farmer’s head’,” suggesting that this latest discovery may not be quite as surprising as advertised.
However, speculation is one thing, hard evidence quite another. A new self-portrait by van Gogh is definitely exciting.
“To understand everything is to forgive everything,” wrote van Gogh to his sister (in reference to a phrase by Madame de Staël), “and I believe that if We knew everything, we would come to some serenity.” Of course, it is possible to find serenity “even if you know little – nothing – for sure”. This, he wrote, “is perhaps a better cure for all ills than what is sold in chemists.”
Unfortunately, van Gogh eluded composure most of the time. But I think he experienced it – in addition to a lot of excitement – while painting. The wonderful thing is that we can find serenity (along with a host of other emotions) in front of the images he left us – one more of which we now have than we thought.