A Van Gogh Within a Van Gogh? This Masterpiece Has a Hidden Self-Portrait

An x-ray revealed another layer to the artist's "Head of a Peasant Woman."

Before Vincent van Gogh had produced signature post-impressionist works like "The Starry Night" or "Self-Portrait," the painter had first been inspired by Dutch peasants. He painted much darker and somber realist pieces in his earlier period, most notably "The Potato Eaters." We can see his progression in mood, theme, and color over the four-year span.

Thanks to the advent of new research, we find ourselves rediscovering and reevaluating these pieces through fresher lens. In the case of "Head of a Peasant Woman," we have found out that it was a portrait of a local woman from the southern town of Nuenen in the Netherlands, where Van Gogh had lived in from 1883 to 1885.

Now, experts at the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) have added more to the piece and this particular Van Gogh period's legend. The institution recently discovered something hiding in plain sight; an x-ray revealed that a hidden self-portrait of Van Gogh had been concealed within the painting for more than 100 years.

The x-ray of "Head of a Peasant Woman" (1885) by Vincent van Gogh, Oil on Canvas Laid on Millboard.

Photo by National Galleries of Scotland.

When the painting was being x-rayed for a new exhibition called A Taste for Impressionism | Modern French Art from Millet to Matisse, the group had found a familiar “bearded sitter in a brimmed hat with a neckerchief loosely tied at the throat” underneath the glue and cardboard. “When we saw the x-ray for the first time, of course, we were hugely excited,” said NGS Senior Paintings Conservator Lesley Stevenson. “Such a major discovery happens once, twice, in a conservator’s lifetime.”

There's a precedent for this, too. Even works from masters like Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso had been x-rayed in the past, providing us with valuable insights on the painters' creative process. These go to show that it was pretty common for artists like Van Gogh to reuse canvasses and cardboards.

In 2016, Degas’ "Portrait of a Woman" had another portrait of a different woman behind it. It was believed to be a hidden portrait of a Degas muse, French artist Emma Dobigny. Meanwhile, in 2018, researchers at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada discovered a secret image beneath Picasso's "La Misereuse Accroupie" ("The Crouching Beggar" or "The Crouching Woman"). Picasso was said to have bought a landscape painting from an unknown artist for this. From there, he had turned it into one of his blue period's most memorable pieces.

Stevenson added: “Knowing that it’s there, in a collection that belongs to the people of Scotland, is incredibly important. To have an image as elusive as it presently is, is something very, very special.”

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At this point, with the help of technology, there are going to be more layers to uncover in art history soon enough.

The exhibition will have the x-ray image displayed in a customized crafted lightbox, which opens on July 30, 2022. Learn more about Van Gogh’s hidden self-portrait here.

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Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is the assistant section editor of Esquire Philippines.
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