The discovery of a long-hidden artwork is always an occasion of excitement. Whether it be through an institution stumbling upon a work that fell through the cracks or discerning a hidden layer to an existent work, there’s a mystique to this event that so rarely occurs. This past week the National Galleries of Scotland made a remarkable discovery of the sort when they found a hidden van Gogh portrait on the back of one of their pieces.
In advance of the National Galleries of Scotland’s exhibition “A Taste for Impressionism”, they had been examining Head of a Peasant Woman (1885) by Vincent van Gogh—a simple and sober depiction of what appears to be a milkmaid, with a slight warmth to her skin. As they looked over it with an x-ray, they were shocked to discover the unmistakable visage of van Gogh in self-portrait on the reverse side. A later work than Head of a Peasant Woman, this is not the first such instance of the pained and prolific artist placing an image of himself on the reverse of an earlier canvas.
For the moment the gallery is still working towards the process of revealing the hidden van Gogh in a necessarily careful fashion—it sits under layers of cardboard and glue and will require “delicate conservation work” so as not to damage either painting.
But even in its current form as an x-ray image, the work is truly striking. With half of his face lost in darkness, practically dissolving into its surroundings, the artist’s one eye stares fixedly out towards the viewer, little facial features available to give humanity to ground the expression in humanity. His brimmed hat and knot tie give it a sense of normalcy, but sitting with such a pointed gaze halfway into an abyss of chalkboard green haunts us with a strong representation of that which underpinned van Gogh’s hopeful colours.
What strikes most perhaps in this sombre image is the left ear still being fully intact.
Until the hidden van Gogh can be properly uncovered, the National Galleries of Scotland will allow the world to view this covert piece via a specialized light box as part of the display. Whether the revealing process will be feasible still remains to be seen. Still, the sheer knowledge of this painting’s existence makes it a tremendous addition to the legacy of one of the world’s greatest painters. Even long after the world came to see his beauty, he still finds ways to surprise us.