On Friday afternoon, they found him, staring from behind a canvas in a wide-brimmed hat and loose neckerchief: an undiscovered self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh, one of the most famous and influential people in the west . art history, hidden from plain sight in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland for more than half a century.
“It was absolutely thrilling,” said Lesley Stevenson, senior paintings conservator at the National Galleries of Scotland, once a regular conservation X-ray of another Van Gogh painting, Head of a Peasant Woman, revealed the extraordinary finding this back. of canvas, hidden for more than 100 years under layers of glue and cardboard.
“We weren’t too hopeful,” Stevenson said of the “modest little painting” donated in 1960 by an Edinburgh lawyer, Alexander Maitland. It was X-rayed as part of a cataloging workout and in preparation for the Royal Scottish Academy’s summer exhibition of French impressionism-although Van Gogh was Dutch, he spent most of his artistic career in France.
The X-ray plates were processed in an old darkroom, and when Stevenson looked at the photos he realized he was staring into Van Gogh’s own face.
“Here and here! We don’t see much of the female farmer, but what we do have is the white of the lead, the heavier pigment she used for her face, which shows up after the X-ray passed through the cardboard.
Further research suggests that the painting is one of a series of experimental self -portraits – there are five similar works, on display at the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands – that have been painted on the backs of earlier canvases since he was lived in Nuenen, in the south of the country, from December 1883 to November 1885. There he conducted some studies of farmers in preparation for his first masterpiece The Potato Eaters, painted in 1885.
Frances Fowle, senior curator for French art, said that the discovery-thought to be the first for any institution in the UK-added to our understanding of an important period in Van Gogh’s artistic development, in the early he became acquainted with the work of the French impressionists after moving to Paris in 1886, where he was supported by his brother Theo and met avant-garde artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Émile Bernard.
Inspired by the likes of Georges Seurat and Paul Gauguin, he adopted a more colorful and expressive style of painting, experimented with broken brushwork for the first time, used himself as a model and reused canvases to save money. of money.
Fowle said: “This period when he started making self-portraits was key to developing his mature style, when he started experimenting with his own unique brush strokes. Van Gogh was a very independent thinker. and he quickly developed his radical new style. “
Now conservators will begin the process of exposing the self-portrait, which is in uncertain condition under layers of adhesive and cardboard, while retaining the original painting. “It’s like stepping into the unknown,” Stevenson said. “The challenge is to remove the glue from the oil paint layers, exploiting the difference in solubility of animal-based glue and oil-based paint.”
In a typical year, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam takes up to 300 inquiries from people who believe they have discovered a missing Van Gogh, but few have been found to be legitimate. In 2013, the Sunset landscape in Montmajour, painted two years before he died in 1890 and forgotten in a Norwegian attic, was displayed in Amsterdam, while last year a pencil sketch of a weary worker, Worn Out, was shown after to sit unrelated to the private collection of the Dutch family for over a century.
“Discovering a new task is not uncommon,” Stevenson said. “Anything that gives us more information about the artist is a big bonus, and just shows the benefit of technological analysis, that we can still learn new things.”