AMSTERDAM — There are 35 known self-portraits by Vincent van Gogh in the world. That seems to have changed this week.
“We can now add another picture to that number,” Louis van Tilborg, senior curator at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, said on Thursday.
The National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, with the support of the Van Gogh Museum, has announced that it has discovered what appears to be a new self-portrait by Van Gogh, hidden behind another work by the Dutch artist and covered with cardboard.
This 1885 painting, Head of a Peasant Woman, is part of a series of portraits that Van Gogh painted in Nuenen, Holland, which were probably sketches for his famous work, The Potato Eaters. The National Galleries x-rayed the work in preparation for an upcoming exhibition and noticed that there was another image on the back.
“It’s extremely 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 developed his style in Paris and southern France and is considered by art historians to be part of the French Post-Impressionist movement.
Fowle said no one has actually seen the self-portrait because it cannot be seen with the naked eye.
But Leslie Stephenson, an art restorer at the National Galleries, was the first to discover the hidden self-portrait via an X-ray, and she sent Fowle a text message with a photo. Fowle was standing in line at the fish store when she got the message, she said, and was “amazed to see this ghostly face appear.”
“We’re not going to remove the cardboard right away because it’s a complicated process,” she added. “You have these layers of glue, so you have to remove them very carefully.”
The museum has owned Head of a Peasant Girl since 1960, when it was donated by Alexander Maitland, an Edinburgh barrister, as part of a collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works that also included works by Paul Gauguin and Edgar Degas. The museum already owns three Van Gogh paintings, and Fowle said she saw the self-portrait as the fourth.
Many of van Gogh’s self-portraits were painted during his time in Paris, especially from 1886 to 1888. He was short of money, so he reused canvases he had used for other works in Holland. Since he also could not afford to hire models, he often turned the mirror to his own face.
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam owns five double-sided paintings, which are works by Nieunen on one side and self-portraits on the other. So this painting fits right into that series, van Tilborg said. “We know of other cases of portraits in our museum that have been hidden under cardboard on the other side,” he said.
Sjraar van Heugten, an independent Van Gogh expert, said that based on material about the new discovery, which the museum posted online, he felt confident that the hidden painting was a genuine self-portrait of the artist.
He added that it is “highly unlikely that someone would get their hands on a real Van Gogh painting and paint a fake picture on the back. There is plenty of evidence that this is the real thing.
Yet was it too early to claim the discovery of a new Van Gogh painting that had until now only been seen as an X-ray?
“Scientifically, we can’t know it’s a self-portrait because obviously we haven’t seen it yet,” said Rachel Esner, an associate professor of art history at the University of Amsterdam who specializes in 19th-century art.
“But the chances of it being him are high,” she added. “Maybe it’s a little premature, but looking at it objectively, with all the science behind it, I think it’s perfectly legitimate.”
Fowle said the National Galleries of Scotland will wait to remove the cardboard until Head of a Peasant Woman is on display at the museum, adding that she expects to unveil 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.”