X-ray appears to reveal new self-portrait of Van Gogh, experts say

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X-ray appears to reveal new self-portrait of Van Gogh, experts say

AMSTERDAM – There were 35 known self-portraits by Vincent van Gogh worldwide. That seems to have changed this week.

“We can now add another image to that number,” said Louis van Tilborgh, senior curator at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, on Thursday.

The National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, with support from the Van Gogh Museum, announced that they had discovered what appeared to be a new self-portrait by van Gogh, hidden and covered in cardboard on the back of another work by the Dutch artist.

This 1885 painting, Head of a Peasant Woman, was part of a series of portraits painted by van Gogh in Nuenen, Netherlands, which were likely studies for his famous work The Potato Eaters. The National Galleries x-rayed the work in preparation for an upcoming exhibition and found that there was another image on the reverse.

“It’s tremendously exciting,” said Frances Fowle, senior curator of French art at the National Galleries. “It’s like getting a new painting for the collection.”

The upcoming exhibition, A Taste for Impressionism: Modern French Art From Millet to Matisse, opens July 30 and runs through November 13. Van Gogh was Dutch, but he developed his style in Paris and the south of France and is regarded by art historians as part of the French Post-Impressionist movement.

Fowle said no one actually saw the self-portrait because it cannot be viewed with the naked eye.

But Lesley Stevenson, art conservator at the National Galleries, was the first to spot the hidden self-portrait via X-ray, and she texted Fowle with a photo. Fowle was standing in line at the fishmonger’s when she got the news, she said, and was “amazed when she saw that kind of spooky face appear.”

“We’re not going to remove the box right away because it’s a complicated process,” she added. “You have these layers of glue, so you have to be very careful removing them.”

The museum has had the ‘Head of a Peasant Woman’ since 1960, when it was donated by Alexander Maitland, an Edinburgh lawyer, as part of a collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works which also included works by Paul Gauguin and Edgar Degas. The museum already owns three van Gogh paintings, and Fowle said she sees the self-portrait as a fourth.

A large majority of van Gogh’s self-portraits were painted during his stay in Paris, particularly from 1886 to 1888. He was short of funds so he reused canvases he had used for other works in the Netherlands. Since he couldn’t afford to hire models either, he often held the mirror in front of his face.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has five double-sided paintings, works by Nuenen on one side and self-portraits on the other. So this painting fits right into that series, said van Tilborgh. “We know from other cases of portraits in our museum that they were hidden under cardboard on the other side,” he said.

Sjraar van Heugten, an independent expert on van Gogh, said that based on materials about the new discovery that the museum had posted online, he was confident that the hidden image was a genuine self-portrait of the artist.

He added that it was “very unlikely that someone would get their hands on a real van Gogh painting and paint a fake painting on the back. There’s a lot of evidence that this is the real thing.”

But was it perhaps too early to claim the discovery of a new Van Gogh painting previously believed to be an X-ray only?

“Scientifically, we can’t know it’s a self-portrait because obviously we haven’t seen it,” said Rachel Esner, associate professor of art history at the University of Amsterdam, who specializes in 19th-century art.

“But the chances are that he is,” she added. “It may be a bit premature, but objectively, with all the science behind it, it seems perfectly legit to me.”

Fowle said the National Galleries of Scotland would wait to remove the box until Head of a Peasant Woman was shown in the museum’s exhibition, adding that she expects to show the self-portrait to the public in 2023.

“I’d like to rip it off the back now,” she said. “But we have to be very, very careful.”

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