The painting about to go on exhibition was one of the known masterpiece works of Vincent Van Gogh. When conservators X-rayed “Head of a Peasant Woman” as part of the pre-show preparation, they were shocked to discover a “concealed image at the back of its canvas hidden by a sheet of cardboard.” A never before seen self-portrait.
A masterpiece or two
Layers of glue and cardboard disguised a hidden self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh. Back then, he was a starving artist. When Head of a Peasant Woman was painted in 1885, the penniless painter re-used the canvas.
That image became a masterpiece but nobody noticed the back was painted, too. Not until now. Conservators have better gear to play with these days.
The colorful and popular painting was all set to go on exhibition in Scotland at the National Galleries. Before they could let the public see it, they needed to clean off all the dust and generally spruce it up for display. All with painstaking care to clean but not damage a single thing.
It’s become standard practice to put paintings under an X-ray these days. Conservators weren’t expecting anything at all to show up, so, they were startled speechless to discover they had another masterpiece on their hands.
“Moments like this are incredibly rare,” Frances Fowle relates. He’s senior curator of French art at the NGS. He put out a press release on Thursday, July 14 noting, “we have discovered an unknown work by Vincent van Gogh, one of the most important and popular artists in the world.”
That’s not something that happens every day. The self-portrait underlying the masterpiece was likely “made during a key moment in Van Gogh’s career, when he was exposed to the work of the French impressionists after moving to Paris.”
Utterly compelling images
When conservators saw the x-ray scan of the masterpiece come in, they were floored by the “utterly compelling” image. It clearly showed “a bearded sitter in a brimmed hat with a neckerchief loosely tied at the throat. He fixes the viewer with an intense stare, the right side of his face in shadow and his left ear clearly visible.”
His right was the one he chopped off in one of his frequent hallucinations, after a quarrel with fellow artist Paul Gauguin.
Nobody has seen the actual new painting yet. They haven’t figured out how to uncover it without destroying the masterpiece on the other side. They aren’t even sure of it’s current condition.
“The process of removing the glue and cardboard will require delicate conservation work. Research is ongoing as to how this can be done without harming ‘Head of a Peasant Woman.’”
The masterpiece everyone knew about shows “a local woman from the town of Nuenen in the south of the Netherlands, where the artist lived from December 1883 to November 1885.”
It was acquired by the Scottish National Galleries in 1960 as “a gift from an Edinburgh lawyer.” They think the cardboard was stuck on the canvas prior to framing “around 1905.” That’s when it was lent to an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, in Amsterdam.