A painting likely to be a previously unknown self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh has been discovered by the National Galleries of Scotland, according to Edinburgh’s institution.
The portrait was found on the back of the canvas of the Dutch post-Impressionist’s 1885 work “Head of a Peasant Woman”, covered by layers of glue and cardboard.
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It shows a bearded sitter in a brimmed hat with a neckerchief tied loosely at the neck. His left ear, which the painter famously cut off in 1888 after tempers flared with Paul Gauguin, is clearly visible.
Professor Frances Fowle, senior curator of French art at the National Galleries of Scotland, said on Thursday “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,” he said.
Visitors will be able to see it at a forthcoming exhibition between July 30 and November 13 as an X-ray image through a specially designed light box.
Longer term, curators are working on safely extracting it from the overlaying canvas without damaging the paintings.
Shedding light on van Gogh’s life
Lesley Stevenson, a senior paintings conservator at the National Galleries, said they were “thrilled to bits” at the find.
“This is a significant discovery because it adds to what we already know about van Gogh’s life,” he said. “There is lots to think about with regards to the next steps, but for us, it is another little nugget to get us a little bit closer to an incredible artist.”
Van Gogh was known for reusing canvas to save money by turning it around and working on the opposite side.
Curators believe the painting is one of a series of experimental self-portraits. Five similar works are displayed at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, painted before he moved to Paris in 1886.
Probably around 1905, when the Peasant Woman was lent to an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the decision was made to stick the canvas down on cardboard prior to framing.
At this date, the Peasant Woman was evidently considered more complete than the Van Gogh self-portrait, the National Galleries of Scotland said in a press release.
The painting changed hands several times and in 1923 was acquired by Evelyn St Croix Fleming, whose son, Ian, became the creator of James Bond.
In 1951, it came to Scotland, having entered the collection of Alexander and Rosalind Maitland.