Believed to be a first for a UK institution, the mysterious image was revealed by an X-ray taken when we examined Van Gogh’s Head of a Peasant Woman of 1885 ahead of our exhibition A Taste for Impressionism.
Visitors can see the amazing X-ray image for the first time through a specially crafted lightbox at the centre of the display.
Hidden from view for over a century, the self-portrait is on the back of the canvas with Head of a Peasant Woman and is covered by layers of glue and cardboard.
Our experts believe these materials were applied ahead of an exhibition in the early twentieth century. Van Gogh often re-used canvases to save money. However, instead of painting over earlier works, he would turn the canvas around and work on the reverse.
It may be possible to uncover the hidden self-portrait, but the process of removing the glue and cardboard will require delicate conservation work. Research is ongoing as to how that can be done without harming Head of a Peasant Woman.
Until then, the world can enjoy the tantalising discovery through a ghostly and utterly compelling X-ray image. It shows a bearded sitter in a brimmed hat with a neckerchief loosely tied at the throat. He fixes the viewer with an intense stare, the right side of his face in shadow and his left ear clearly visible.
Later in date than the Head of a Peasant Woman, the hidden painting is likely to have been made during a key moment in Van Gogh’s career, when he was exposed to the work of the French impressionists after moving to Paris. The experience had a profound effect and was a major influence on why he adopted a more colourful and expressive style of painting – one that is so much admired today.
Once revealed, the hidden self-portrait will be part of a group of several such self-portraits and other works painted on the back of earlier canvases from the Nuenen period. Five examples are in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Others in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut; and the Kunstmuseum Den Haag.