AMSTERDAM — There were 35 known self-portraits of Vincent van Gogh in the world. That appears to have changed this week.
“To that number, we can add now another picture,” Louis van Tilborgh, a 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, announced that it had discovered what seemed to be a new van Gogh self-portrait, hidden on the back of another work by the Dutch artist and covered up by cardboard.
That 1885 painting, “Head of a Peasant Woman,” was part of a series of portraits that van Gogh painted in Nuenen, the Netherlands, which were probably studies 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 tremendously exciting,” said Frances Fowle, a 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 Nov. 13. Van Gogh was Dutch, but he developed his style in Paris and the south of France, and is considered by art historians to be part of the French post-Impressionist movement.
Fowle said no one had actually seen the self-portrait, because it cannot be viewed with a naked eye.
But Lesley Stevenson, an art restorer at the National Galleries, was the first to discover the hidden self-portrait via X-ray, and she sent Fowle a text message with a photo. Fowle was standing in line at the fishmonger when she received the message, she said, and was “amazed when she saw this kind of ghostly face appear.”
“We won’t take the cardboard off right away because it’s a complicated process,” she added. “You’ve got these layers of glue, so you have to remove that very carefully.”
The museum has owned the “Head of a Peasant Woman” since 1960, when it was donated by Alexander Maitland, an Edinburgh lawyer, as part of a collection of Impressionist and post-impressionist works that also included pieces by Paul Gauguin and Edgar Degas. The museum already owns three van Gogh paintings, and Fowle said she saw the self-portrait as a fourth.
A vast majority of van Gogh’s self-portraits were painted during his stay in Paris, especially from 1886 to 1888. He was short on money, so he reused canvases that he had used for other works in Netherlands. Because he also could not afford to hire models, he frequently turned the mirror on his own face.
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam owns five double-sided paintings that are Nuenen works on one side, and self portraits on the other. So this painting fits right into that series, van Tilborgh said. “We know of other cases of portraits in our museum that they were hidden under cardboard on the other side,” he said.
Sjraar van Heugten, an independent expert on van Gogh, said that, based on materials about the new discovery that the museum had posted online, he felt confident that the hidden picture was a real self-portrait by the artist.
He added that it was “very unlikely that someone would get a real van Gogh painting in his hands and paint a fake painting on the back. There’s a lot of evidence that this is the real thing.”
Yet was it possibly early to assert the discovery of a new Van Gogh painting, which so far has been viewed only as an X-ray?
“Scientifically speaking, we can’t know that it’s a self-portrait because we obviously 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 that it is him are great,” she added. “It’s maybe a little premature, but looking at it objectively, with all the science behind it, it seems to me to be entirely legitimate.”
Fowle said the National Galleries of Scotland would wait to remove the cardboard until after “Head of a Peasant Woman” was displayed in the museum’s show, adding that she expected to reveal 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.”