The National Galleries of Scotland have unveiled a previously unknown self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh in one of the famous Dutch painter’s paintings.
The extraordinary find is believed to be a first for a British institution and was uncovered by an x-ray taken of Van Gogh’s ‘Peasant’s Head’ (1885) ahead of the upcoming ‘A Taste for Impressionism’ exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh .
Hidden for more than a century, the portrait was found on the back of the canvas with “Peasant’s Head”, covered with layers of glue and cardboard that would have been applied before an exhibition at the beginning of the 20th century. .
Van Gogh was known to reuse canvas to save money by turning it over and working on the opposite side.
The portrait shows a bearded babysitter in a wide-brimmed hat with a scarf loosely tied at her throat. His left ear, which he notoriously cut off in 1888, is clearly visible.
It is thought to stem from his early work and early exploration of self-portraits, for which he later became known.
Viewers will be able to view the sketch as an x-ray image through a specially designed light box.
Although it is possible to separate the paintings, the process of removing the glue and cardboard will require delicate conservation work. Research is underway to find out how this can be done without detracting from “Head of a Peasant Woman”.
The find was described as “exciting” by Professor Frances Fowle, senior curator of French art at the National Galleries of Scotland. She said: “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 to Scotland, and one that will forever remain in the custody of the National Galleries. We are very pleased to share this exciting discovery in our major summer exhibition ‘A Taste for Impressionism’, where the x-ray image of the self-portrait will be exhibited to all.”
Lesley Stevenson, senior conservator of the paintings at the National Galleries, said they were “delighted” to have discovered the portrait.
“When we first saw the x-ray, of course, we were extremely excited,” she said.
“This is an important discovery because it adds to what we already know about Van Gogh’s life.
“There’s a lot to think about in terms of next steps, but for us it’s another little nugget to get us a little closer to an amazing artist.
“Knowing that it’s there in a painting that’s in the National Galleries of Scotland in a collection that belongs to the people of Scotland is incredibly important and meaningful.
“I hope this will encourage people to come and take a look.”
Art lovers can see the portrait as part of the exhibition, which runs from July 30 to November 13.