Senior Conservator Lesley Stevenson views “Head of a Peasant Woman” (1885) alongside an X-ray image of the hidden Van Gogh self-portrait. (photo by Neil Hanna, all courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)

On Thursday, July 14, conservators at the National Galleries of Scotland discovered a previously unknown self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh. Painted on the reverse side of the artist’s “Head of Peasant Woman” (1885) portrait, the apparitional work came to light during an X-ray in preparation for an upcoming Impressionism exhibition in Edinburgh.

Covered by a cardboard backing and glue, the piece unmistakably depicts the bearded Dutch master in a hat and neckerchief with his left ear clearly visible, predating its violent removal in 1888. National Galleries staff believe that the artist’s sister-in-law, Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, framed “Peasant Woman” around 1905 before sending it to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, as it was supposedly considered more complete than the verso self-portrait. 

Van Gogh routinely painted on the reverse sides of canvases to save money, completing more than three dozen self-portraits in a 10-year period. Several similarly hidden portraits have surfaced since Dutch conservator Jan Cornelius Traas uncovered three in 1929, but this is a first for a United Kingdom institution. Professor Frances Fowle, senior curator of French Art at the National Galleries, described it as a “wonderful gift for Scotland.”

“Moments like this are incredibly rare,” Fowle said in a statement. “We have discovered an unknown work by Vincent van Gogh, one of the most important and popular artists in the world.”

“When we saw the X-ray for the first time, of course we were hugely excited,” said senior paintings conservator Lesley Stevenson in a video release. “Such a major discovery happens once, twice in a conservator’s lifetime.”

Sketched in oil and painted with broad brushstrokes, “Peasant Woman” is believed to portray Gordina de Groot, who also modeled with her family for Van Gogh’s 1885 masterpiece “The Potato Eaters.” The artist painted her in earth tones and a white headdress during his time in Nuenen, where he lived with his parents from December 1883 to November 1885. Influenced by French Realists Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet, he spent much of his time there painting farmers, weavers, and workers.

Back of “Head of a Peasant Woman” detail (photo by Neil Hanna)

Van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886 to be closer to his brother Theo, an early supporter of the Impressionists. Crucially, the artist experimented with portraiture on both sides of his canvases during the summer of 1887, when Theo was out of town and could not financially support him. Experts allege that Van Gogh created the hidden self-portrait then, after experiencing the work of post-Impressionists Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat.

“Peasant Woman” was slated for a hanging display at the Royal Scottish Academy’s new exhibition A Taste of Impressionism, opening July 30, which focuses on Scottish avant-garde collectors in the 19th century. Following the discovery, however, the institution is planning to install a lightbox for visitors to see the hidden self-portrait for themselves.

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Billy Anania

Billy Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.