Experts unearth hidden Van Gogh self-portrait

A previously unknown Vincent van Gogh painting has been discovered as the result of research by an Edinburgh art historian.

self portrait of Vincent van Gogh
X-ray image of Vincent van Gogh self portrait - National Galleries of Scotland

Hidden from view for over a century, a self-portrait of the celebrated Dutch artist was found on the back of the canvas during preparations for an  exhibition at the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS).

Professor Frances Fowle, who holds a joint post with the University’s Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) and NGS is the lead curator of the blockbuster show. 

The exciting discovery was made while conservators were conducting an X-ray analysis of Van Gogh’s Head of a Peasant Woman of 1885 as part of a cataloguing exercise.

A Taste for Impression is based on Professor Fowle’s research on collecting and the art market in Scotland and runs until 13 November at the Royal Scottish Academy.

Visitors  are able to see an x-ray image of the portrait for the first time through a specially crafted lightbox at the centre of the exhibition.

Research discoveries

The discovery of the self-portrait was made as a result of Professor Fowle's research for the exhibition and for a major critical catalogue, French Paintings 1500-1900 in the National Galleries of Scotland.

The catalogue is co-authored with Professor Michael Clarke, honorary Professor in History of Art at ECA and is due to be published in November.

The Van Gogh self-portrait, estimated to date from after the artist’s move to Paris in 1886, is still hidden from view, having been covered by cardboard for years.

Experts believe the card was 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 sometimes turn the canvas around and work on the reverse.

It may be possible to uncover the hidden self-portrait, but the process of removing the glue and cardboard will require delicate conservation work. Research is ongoing as to how that can be done without harming Head of a Peasant Woman.

Until then, the world can enjoy the discovery through a ghostly and utterly compelling x-ray image, experts say. 

Researcher looking at painting

Moments like this are incredibly rare. We have discovered an unknown work by Vincent van Gogh, one of the most important and popular artists in the world. What an incredible gift for Scotland, and one that will forever be in the care of the National Galleries. We are very excited to share this thrilling discovery in our big summer exhibition A Taste for Impressionism, where the x-ray image of the self-portrait will be on view for all to see.

Professor Frances FowleSenior Curator of French Art at the National Galleries of Scotland

Professor Fowle has been researching the French paintings at the National Galleries of Scotland for more than two decades.

She has led several collaborations to create major exhibitions with admired museums and galleries and has published widely on French and Scottish nineteenth-century art.

Professor Fowle is the Van Gogh Museum visiting Fellow in 19th-Century art and sits on the international advisory board of the Van Gogh Worldwide project, a digital platform for all works by Vincent van Gogh.

She teaches on ECA’s undergraduate and postgraduate History of Art programmes while also holding the post of Senior Curator of French Art at NGS.

Blockbuster exhibition

A Taste for Impressionism at the Royal Scottish Academy focuses on the pioneering nineteenth-century Scottish collectors who had the foresight to invest in the avant-garde, with a stellar cast of artists represented including Monet, Gauguin and Van Gogh.

The exhibition is supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

Related links

National Galleries of Scotland 

Edinburgh College of Art  

Image credit – Neil Hanna – Courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland