Curators at the National Galleries of Scotland recently got quite a surprise after X-raying a painting by Vincent van Gogh. Hidden in the back of the painting”head of a peasant woman (opens in new tab)‘, which Van Gogh completed in 1885, was a previously unknown self-portrait of the Dutch painter staring at her.
The hidden self-portrait had been obscured by layers of glue and cardboard attached to the back of the canvas; Museum officials suspect the materials were used sometime in the early 20th century to protect the artwork for an upcoming exhibition, National Galleries officials said in a expression (opens in new tab).
“It was absolutely exciting,” said Lesley Stevenson, the museum’s senior painting conservator The guard (opens in new tab) about the discovery. “We didn’t expect much [of the] modest little painting,” she said as they conducted the scans. But museum experts quickly revised their expectations upon viewing X-rays. “We don’t see much of the farmer’s wife, but what we have is the white lead, the much heavier pigment [Van Gogh] used for his face, which appears after the x-ray goes through the box.”
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Van Gogh painted Head of a Peasant Woman as part of a series of works focused on the working-class residents of Nuenen, a small farming community in the south of the Netherlands where he lived briefly in the 1880s. The woman in the painting is Gordina de Groot, a farmhand. She wears a flowing white headgear and her face is partially obscured by shadows.
in one Letter (opens in new tab) in 1885 to Anton Kerssemakers, a friend and fellow artist, about the series, Van Gogh described his fascination with his working-class subjects. “I work with almighty pleasure these days, for I would much rather paint figures than anything else,” he wrote. “The heads of these women here with the white caps – it’s difficult – but it’s so eternally beautiful.
Van Gogh also liked to create self-portraits and towards the end of his life he made around 20 paintings of himself while he was living in Paris. The Washington Post (opens in new tab) reported. Recreating his own image was an economical way for him to practice portraiture without spending money on hiring models, according to the Washington Post.
Art historians at the National Galleries hope the hidden self-portrait may offer glimpses into the life of the troubled Van Gogh, who took his own life with a revolver at the age of 37. The museum is currently investigating how best to remove the unwanted layers of protective materials without damaging the painting.
The painting and an image of the self-portrait will be on display later this summer as part of the museum’s forthcoming exhibition A fondness for Impressionism (opens in new tab) Exhibition running from July 30th to November 13th.
Originally published on Live Science.