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Van Gogh behind Van Gogh

The National Galleries of Scotland has discovered what is almost certainly a previously unknown self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh. Believed to be a first for a UK institution, the mysterious image was revealed by an x-ray taken when art conservators examined Van Gogh’s Head of a Peasant Woman of 1885 ahead of the forthcoming exhibition A Taste for Impressionism (30 July–13 November) at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh.

Senior Conservator Lesley Stevenson views Head of a Peasant Woman alongside an x - ray image of the hidden Van Gogh self - portrait . Photo graph by Neil Hanna
Senior Conservator Lesley Stevenson views Head of a Peasant Woman alongside an x - ray image of the hidden Van Gogh self - portrait . Photograph by Neil Hanna

Hidden from view for over a century, the self-portrait is on the back of the canvas with Head of a Peasant Woman and is covered by layers of glue and cardboard. NGS experts believe these materials were applied ahead of an exhibition in the early twentieth century. Van Gogh often re-used canvases to save money. However, instead of painting over earlier works, he would turn the canvas around and work on the reverse.

On the left, Head of a Peasan Woman, on the right, Vincent's self-portrait hidden behind the canvas.

Head of a Peasant Woman entered the NGS collection in 1960, as part of the gift of an Edinburgh lawyer, Alexander Maitland, in memory of his wife Rosalind. Dating from an early period in Van Gogh’s career, the painting 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.

Painted in March or April 1885, it seems to be a likeness of Gordina de Groot (known as Sien) who was a model for Van Gogh’s early masterpiece The Potato Eaters of 1885 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). Her facial features, white cap and simple work clothes are sketched in oil, using broad brushstrokes and earthy colours typical of French realist artists such as Jean-François Millet, whom Van Gogh greatly admired.

In his art history lectures, Fabrice Roy combines the past with the present, in a poetic and playful evocation of the French 19th century...


National Galleries of Scotland,

73 Belford Road, Edinburgh, EH4 3DS



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