There is a meta-story within the larger story that often reveals the ‘unimaginable’ and when it comes to Vincent Van Gogh, arguably the world’s most famous artist, this is most likely to be the case.
The “unimaginable” repeated itself at the National Galleries of Scotland late Thursday afternoon last week, when Lesley Stevenson, senior painting conservator, accidentally discovered a self-portrait of the Dutch Impressionist on the back of another painting entitled “Head of a Peasant Woman” drawn in 1885.
Stevenson was preparing for an upcoming exhibition at the galleries titled A Taste for Impressionism: Modern French Art from Millet to Matisse, due to start July 30, and as part of the preparation, Head of a Peasant Woman was created. subjected to an X-ray revealing a portrait of a man eerily resembling Van Gogh from the back of the canvas.
The man, who had a piercing gaze, wore a scarf and a wide-brimmed hat and was half visible in the grayish darkness of the composition; enough to feel it was the loner himself. Stevenson described the startling revelation as a “shock” that unraveled another layer of the “anagram” named Vincent Van Gogh.
It is strangely puzzling how a life cut short at the age of 37 (1853-1890) with no work of art recognized during his lifetime can evoke such unbridled excitement even after 132 years! Appropriately, over the past hundred years or so, there has been a flood of art historical research into Van Gogh’s life and work.
The revelation just a few days ago paves the way for more exciting facts about the artist as he made this boldly drawn portrait of a peasant woman. The invisible portrait, covered with cardboard and glued with glue, takes one back and forth between 1883 and 1885 when the Impressionist settled in a small Dutch community called Neunen in North Brabant in the Netherlands, where his father was a pastor .
The Potato Eaters
Between December 1883 and November 1885, Van Gogh fell in love with the landscape of this northern province, and above all with its people and their harsh, bare life. He painted the subaltern of the village that led to one of his greatest works, The Potato Eaters, which depicts a group of impoverished, flat-faced peasant families, men and women, seated at a table in their everyday act of having a basic Dinner. A bulbous light hangs from the top of her table, keenly examining her body language.
Van Gogh wrote: “Something peaceful, pleasant, realistic and yet painted with emotion, something brief, synthetic, simplified and concentrated, full of calm and harmony, comforting as music,” quotes psychologist McCay Venon and art historian Marjie L. Baughman in their Essay – “Art, Madness and Human Interaction”. Perhaps this was written during the Nines phase when the realism was comforting enough for VanGogh to compare it to music.
His other works in these two years included titles such as The Rectory Garden in Nuenen in the Snow, painted in January 1885, and The Vicarage at Nuenen, also painted in 1885, revealing a somber tone of self-exploration and solitude.
What was he looking for? Was it just introspection? Were these paintings part of his healing from the disastrous failure of his early life goals, “religious salvation of the miners”? Whatever this phase was exactly, it was closely linked to his extremely complex mind, which led to the final phase of his life in Arles, France.
In order to decipher the convincing words “Rest und Trost” one has to decipher this phase that produced what is probably his greatest work “The Potato Eaters”. Like its famous cousin, ‘Head of a Peasant Woman’ may have been a source and reason for a quieter spirit, as it featured Gordina de Groots, a young peasant woman Vincent was friends with.
In a letter to Theo, his younger brother and lifelong confidant, the artist acknowledged his growing interest and his almost “walk-in” connection with the de Groot’s, describing how beautiful the family looked as they sat down to dinner one corner of theirs house that is filled with natural light.
He even called the scene “amazingly beautiful”. Literally speaking, Van Gogh expressed a desire to paint two women of this family and to describe their beauty as that of “green soap”.
As with so many aspects of Van Gogh’s life, we remain in the dark about the “green soap” reference. The next one knows that the young Gordina sat for Van Gogh in his studio in nine for a few days. She became pregnant just prior to those modeling days and Van Gogh was accused of her pregnancy by the local sexton.
He denied giving them the name of the father of Gordina’s unborn child, information she had confided in Van Gogh during their frequent interactions in the studio. It was the summer of 1885. The Impressionist painter once again wrote: “Not only does one achieve greatness by surrendering to one’s impulses, but also by patiently filing away the steel wall that separates what one feels and what one can do”.
These contemplative words are almost conclusions. It was certainly an impulse that had prompted him to remain in that otherwise lackluster provincial town with the lonely high pitch, having known the De Groots, of which his friendship with Gordina was central. By 1886 Van Gogh had moved to Paris and this self-portrait on the reverse was probably painted after he settled there.
Although some art historians have always justified Vincent’s use of the same canvas in terms of his financial inadequacy, there is still room for interpretation about last week’s find. A kind of Pandora’s box opens.
Like his letters, was this self-portrait an addition to his compensatory mechanism, a response to his inability to attract critical attention, or his materialistic inadequacy and prolonged loneliness, or just another impulsive experiment stemming from his inability to hire a model? . Had this art come from an impulse, from a soul connection he felt with Gordina?
Apparently, in his letters to Theo during the creative phase of The Potato Eaters, which is identical to Head of a Peasant Woman, Van Gogh emphasizes that his painting is not a “mere aesthetic act” but a process of “location”. even’ in a special world.
A routine depiction of his feelings and his inertia, the letters also show how Vincent perceived his art, often referring to it as “home”, an identification he phrased as if the working class, that is, the miners, laborers, and peasants , would be an extension of itself, merging subject and painter.
Would it be unlikely to interpret this self-portrait based on the idea of this ‘merging’ using the back of the canvas as a reminder of ‘Impulse’ read the association of its nine days.
The Paris phase, beginning in January 1886, was the “psychodynamic” burst of Van Gogh’s creativity. In the two years he drew about twenty more self-portraits and more during his last years of illness in Arles. I would associate this self-portrait as part of that intense creativity as he grew more and more confident in his painterly self.
Significantly more paintings had previously been found on the back of his self-portraits, suggesting that he did not pay much attention to what was already drawn.
After the deaths of the two brothers within just six months, first Vincent’s and later Theo’s, Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, Theo’s wife and the artist’s sister-in-law, was left with 200 paintings by Van Gogh, some of them with little fortune and one child to raise . In the years to come, she would play a tremendous, pivotal role in popularizing Van Gogh’s work throughout the world.
In this difficult task that Johanna took upon herself, she began lending Van Gogh’s paintings to museums, and so ‘Head of a Peasant Woman’ reached the Stedelijk Museum for an exhibition in 1905. It is usually assumed that the cardboard backing was added and the picture framed during this time.
Then began a trail of provenance unknown to most until it became part of Alexander and Rosalind’s Maitland Collection in Edinburgh in 1951. Nine years later, the respected lawyer Alexander donated the art to the National Galleries of Scotland.
There is still so much “unknown” about Vincent and Gordina’s connection as to why Vincent took the portrait to Paris in 1886, though he never cared for what was once Dawn. Why did he paint a self portrait on the back of this canvas and nothing else that wrapped it exactly with cardboard and glue and more.
Van Gogh will remain one of the art world’s enduring fascination, to say the least, but by now many of us would like to believe what he wrote in one of his 700+ letters to his brother – ‘Let The Rest Be Dark’.
Nilosree is a writer and filmmaker