A ‘ghostly’ new Van Gogh self-portrait has appeared at the National Galleries of Scotland

The preparations for an upcoming exhibition organised by the National Galleries of Scotland and scheduled to open on 30th July has prompted a new discovery. A Taste for Impressionism: Modern French Art from Millet to Matisse promises to tell “the remarkable story of how Scotland became home to one of the world’s greatest collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art”, but before it has even opened it has attracted media attention, as new research on Vincent Van Gogh’s Head of a Peasant Woman (1884) in the museum’s permanent collection, has led to the discovery of a new self-portrait by the artist.

Head of a Peasant Woman is a small painting which depicts a woman in a white headdress against a dark, subdued background. The painting was made whilst Van Gogh was living in Neunen, South Holland, and was likely executed in association with his well-known larger painting, The Potato Eaters, which is now at the Van Gogh Museum and was completed in the same earthy tones as Head of a Peasant Woman. An X-ray carried out on the painting in preparation for the upcoming exhibition revealed that on the back is a self-portrait of the artist. It is covered up by layers of glue and cardboard, but conservators believe that it is unmistakably another self-portrait by the artist. Louis van Tilborgh, senior curator at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, said that a number of other paintings Van Gogh created during his time in Neunen have works on one side and self-portraits on the reverse. This painting therefore fits in well with what Van Gogh was known to have been doing at the time.

Lesley Stevenson, senior conservator at the museum, said the discovery was a complete “shock”, and that, “this is a significant discovery because it adds to what we already know about Van Gogh’s life.” Frances Fowle, senior curator of French art at the National Galleries, said it is “tremendously exciting”, and that, “it’s like getting a new painting for the collection.” In fact, when Stevenson made the X-ray discovery, she sent Fowle a text message with the photo attached. Fowle recalls how she was “amazed” to see “this kind of ghostly face appear”. Art historian Bendor Grosvenor has added that “it is very difficult to judge the value on the basis of the X-ray we’ve just seen”, however it could be worth £100 million.

Sjraar van Heugten, an expert on Van Gogh, has stated that, based on what he has read about this new discovery, he feels confident that the portrait is an authentic work by the Dutch artist. He claimed that it is “very unlikely that someone would get a real van Gogh painting in his hands and paint a fake painting on the back. There’s a lot of evidence that this is the real thing.”

Those planning to attend the exhibition in Edinburgh will have the chance to see the X-ray in a lightbox, but there are hopes that it might be possible to remove all the layers of glue and carboard so the real thing may be seen at some stage. Fowle has said that, “we won’t take the cardboard off right away because it’s a complicated process. You’ve got these layers of glue, so you have to remove them very carefully.” Hopefully in the future it might be possible to display this exciting new discovery. 

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