Conservators at the National Galleries of Scotland were taking an X-ray of Vincent van Gogh’s Head of a Peasant Woman when, to their surprise, they found the piercing gaze of the artist himself staring back at them. On the back of the canvas, a self-portrait of van Gogh is hidden behind cardboard and glue, the museum announced in a statement.
“It was absolutely thrilling,” Lesley Stevenson, senior paintings conservator, tells the Guardian’s Libby Brooks.
The X-ray, taken ahead of a forthcoming exhibition, did not catch much of the peasant woman. Instead, it picked up on the “lead white, the much heavier pigment he used for his face,” Stevenson adds.
Van Gogh reused canvases on many occasions to save money, typically opting to paint on the back side of a canvas rather than paint over an existing work. The self-portrait was most likely lost after Jo Bonger, his sister-in-law, lent the canvas to an exhibition in Amsterdam in 1905. Curators at that exhibition probably deemed the self-portrait as less complete, choosing to glue cardboard to the portrait side in order to secure the canvas before framing, per the statement.
The work is likely part of a series of experimental self-portraits van Gogh made in the summer of 1887, a few years after he painted the peasant lady, according to the museum. Five other self-portraits he painted in Nuen—the Dutch town he lived in for two years—on the backs of earlier works are on display at the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands.
Thanks to a specially made lightbox, an X-ray of the self-portrait will be on view at the museum’s coming exhibition, “A Taste for Impressionism.”
“Moments like this are incredibly rare,” Frances Fowle, senior curator of French art, says in the statement. “We have discovered an unknown work by Vincent van Gogh, one of the most important and popular artists in the world. What an incredible gift for Scotland.”
Fowle adds that the work reveals more about a critical period in van Gogh’s development as an artist: After moving to Paris in 1886 to be closer to his brother, van Gogh was introduced to French impressionism, meeting new avant-garde artists and experimenting with more expressive styles of painting.
“This period when he began producing self-portraits was key in the development of his mature style, when he began experimenting with his own distinctive brush stroke,” Fowle tells the Guardian. “Van Gogh was a very independent thinker and he developed his radical new style so quickly.”
While the state of the self-portrait remains unknown, the conservators will attempt to uncover it without damaging Head of a Peasant Woman. The piece came into the museum’s collection in 1960, when a lawyer donated it in honor of his late wife. Created in 1885 during van Gogh’s time in Nuenen, the painting appears to feature Gordina de Groot, a model for his 1885 masterpiece The Potato Eaters.
“The discovery of a new work is extraordinary,” Stevenson tells the Guardian. “Anything that gives us more information about the artist is a huge bonus, and just shows the benefit of technological analysis, that we can still find out new things.”
“A Taste for Impressionism” will be on view at the Royal Scottish Academy from July 30 to November 13.