Art History

Hidden Faces: Vincent van Gogh’s Secret Self-Portrait | Pro Club Bd

One of the most famous figures in 19th-century Western art history, Vincent van Gogh continues to surprise us. According to the National Galleries of Scotland, a previously hidden van Gogh self-portrait has been discovered. Discovered using X-ray technology, the painting is painted on the back of another famous Impressionist painting by van Gogh. head of a peasant woman .

While this discovery is incredible, it is not the first of van Gogh’s secret paintings to be discovered, and it may not be the last. Restorers search endlessly for these hidden paintings, a well-known habit of the famous artist, especially when he was short on cash. So what does the portrait look like, how exactly was it found, and what does it mean in relation to his other work?

Lead Conservator Lesley Stevenson looks at the head of a peasant woman next to an X-ray of Vincent van Gogh’s hidden self-portrait. ( National Galleries of Scotland )

The Tragic Story of Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh was born in the Netherlands in 1853 to a relatively wealthy family. As a child, he began drawing at an early age, a hobby that led to him becoming an art dealer as a teenager. As an art dealer, he sought to sell his own pieces or trade them for others to give his work some local exposure. Traveling for his work, he became exceptionally depressed, prompting him to turn to religion for comfort and to work as a Belgian missionary for several years.

Finding no solace in his missionary work, Van Gogh returned home to his family and took his art a step further. He began working on paintings to trade and sell locally while being financially supported by his brother Theo. Most of these paintings were still lifes and landscapes, although he eventually developed his own style of impressionism in his oil paintings, which he applied to all of his pieces. Eventually, as he expanded his still life work, he began to repeatedly paint certain subjects such as vast fields, sunflowers, and self-portraits. He was known for including many shades of yellow in his later paintings.

Although van Gogh is known today as one of the most famous painters in art history, he was not really famous for his work during his lifetime. Van Gogh was known to struggle with mental illnesses such as depression, hallucinations, nightmares and other psychotic episodes. During one of these psychotic episodes, he cut off a large part of his left ear. As a result, he was often placed in the hands of local psychiatric hospitals who attempted to care for him. These multiple episodes led people to believe his art was the work of a madman rather than a brilliant artist.

Unfortunately, this psychiatric treatment was ultimately unsuccessful. In the end, van Gogh committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a revolver. After his death, those who came across his many paintings began to regard him as a severely judged, misjudged genius. His artworks have been considered some of the most important works of art of his time.

Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat, by Vincent van Gogh.  This self-portrait is currently in the Detroit Institute of Arts and is one of many self-portraits he painted during his lifetime.  (public domain)

Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat, by Vincent van Gogh. This self-portrait is currently in the Detroit Institute of Arts and is one of many self-portraits he painted during his lifetime. ( public domain )

The Many Faces of Vincent van Gogh

According to recent discoveries, van Gogh painted between 35 and 40 self-portraits during his lifetime. However, this figure is based on the paintings found so far. He may actually have painted more, such as the recently discovered portrait uncovered by curators in Edinburgh.

Although it may seem odd for a single artist to paint so many self-portraits, van Gogh’s reasoning behind the portraits is actually quite simple. As a young painter, he wanted to learn how to paint people without taking the time of strangers. To practice, he decided to paint himself looking in the mirror since he could practice with his own face and take as much time as he needed.

Viewing these portraits reveals van Gogh’s many developments as an artist as his skills and techniques honed over time. His self-portraits were often experimental, and if he liked a technique he was using in a self-portrait, he would usually use it in a future painting on a different subject. These experimental portraits were his main practice in French Impressionism, a style he adopted heavily in later pieces.

Head of a Peasant Woman, by Vincent van Gogh.  (National Galleries of Scotland)

Head of a Peasant Woman, by Vincent van Gogh. ( National Galleries of Scotland )

A unique discovery

The discovery of Vincent van Gogh’s recent hidden self-portrait was not intentional. The portrait was discovered during a routine X-ray, a procedure usually performed on famous works of art to establish authenticity and provide insight into the materials used during its creation.

The painting was discovered on the back of another painting by Vincent van Gogh. head of a peasant woman , which was processed for an upcoming exhibition on Impressionism. The portrait was discovered hidden under several layers of cardboard and glue on the back of this painting.

When the X-ray was taken, the restorers were shocked to find that the scan had barely captured this head of a peasant woman Picture. Instead, the X-rays were primarily reacting to the heavy lead-white paint Vincent van Gogh used to paint his own face in the self-portrait that had been hidden for decades.

Museum conservators and art historians confirmed that Vincent van Gogh regularly reused his canvases to save money. This usually meant painting on the back of an already painted canvas, sometimes it meant painting over an old painting he didn’t like.

Senior Curator Frances Fowle examines Vincent van Gogh's Head of a Peasant Woman.  (National Galleries of Scotland)

Senior Curator Frances Fowle examines Vincent van Gogh’s Head of a Peasant Woman. ( National Galleries of Scotland )

In this case the painting was on the back of the canvas but covered with glue and supporting cardboard to hang the piece. Conservators believe this probably happened in 1905, when van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Jo Bonger, loaned the piece to an exhibition in Amsterdam. Curators of the time may have thought it was simply an incomplete piece that was deemed acceptable.

The portrait is believed to be one of the many self-portraits made by Vincent van Gogh in 1887, five of which have also been found on the reverse of other paintings. They are now on display at the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands.

X-ray of Vincent van Gogh's self-portrait.  (National Galleries of Scotland)

X-ray of Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait. ( National Galleries of Scotland )

What now? The restorer’s next steps

Because the portrait is currently hidden under layers of glue and cardboard, any attempts to uncover the portrait must be done carefully and slowly by professional restorers. Any mistake in removing the glue or cardboard could inadvertently destroy it, which would be a major blow to those who discovered the painting.

While the museum finds a team of conservators willing and able to take on this challenging task, art lovers can view the x-ray of the portrait on display at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh using a special light box that contains it within of the exhibition entitled preference for impressionism , which runs from July 30 to November 13, 2022. This is an incredible opportunity for all fans of Vincent van Gogh’s work visiting Edinburgh over the coming months. With any luck, we may soon have good news about the painting’s grand reveal. After all, paintings are meant to be seen in their full glory.

Image above: Detail from an x-ray of Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait discovered on the back of another van Gogh painting preserved in Edinburgh. Source: National Galleries of Scotland

By LexLeigh

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