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Hidden Van Gogh self-portrait discovered behind another painting

“Moments like this are incredibly rare,” said professor Frances Fowle, a senior curator at the National Galleries of Scotland.
Senior conservator Lesley Stevenson views "Head of a Peasant Woman" alongside an X-ray image of the hidden Van Gogh painting.
Senior conservator Lesley Stevenson views "Head of a Peasant Woman" alongside an X-ray image of the hidden Van Gogh painting.Neil Hanna / Scottish National Gallery

They got two Vincent Van Gogh's for the price of one. 

But it took staff at the National Galleries of Scotland decades to discover the self-portrait of legendary artist hidden underneath his painting “Head of a Peasant Woman.”

Concealed beneath a layer of glue and cardboard, a routine X-ray revealed Van Gogh’s portrait had been hiding under the surface for over a century, an intense stare on his face as he sits in a brimmed hat and a neckerchief loosely tied around his throat.

“Moments like this are incredibly rare,” professor Frances Fowle, a senior curator at the National Galleries of Scotland, said in a news release, adding that Van Gogh was “one of the most important and popular artists in the world.”  

Unlike in some of the artist’s later self-portraits, Van Gogh’s left ear is clearly visible in the X-ray. He famously cut it off in December 1888 after an argument with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. He died two years later. 

While the condition of the underlying self-portrait is unknown, it “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 National Galleries of Scotland, which acquired the painting in 1960, said in the news release.   

“The experience had a profound effect and was a major influence on why he adopted a more colorful and expressive style of painting, one that is so much admired today,” the release added.

“In the summer of 1887 Van Gogh was experimenting with painting portraits, using friends and also himself as a model,” the release said, adding that he “re-used canvases to save money.”  

The National Galleries of Scotland said the decision was probably made in around 1905 to stick the canvas down onto cardboard before it was framed. 

“At this date the Peasant Woman was evidently considered more ‘finished’ than the Van Gogh self-portrait,” the news release said. 

A close up of Van Gogh's hidden self portrait.
A close up of Van Gogh's hidden self portrait.Neil Hanna / Scottish National Gallery

It is not the first time that a previously unknown portrait has been discovered underneath one of Van Gogh’s paintings. In 2008, a portrait of a woman was discovered underneath his “Patch of Grass” painting. 

X-ray technology has also revealed fuzzy images beneath his famous “The Blue Room.”

While it may be possible to uncover the hidden self-portrait, the National Galleries of Scotland said the “process of removing the glue and cardboard will require delicate conservation work.”

Until then, the portrait can be viewed through an X-ray image, it added.