While preparing for their exhibit A Taste for Impressionism, conservators at the National Galleries Scotland turned to a technique standard in the art world: X-ray. X-ray is used to examine what lies beneath layers and frames. Turned upon a small painting by Vincent Van Gogh, entitled Head of a Peasant Woman, the X-ray machine revealed something astonishing. On the back of the canvas, under layers of glue and cardboard, was a ghostly self-portrait by the legendary artist.
The Dutch painter Van Gogh is best known for works like Starry Night, but his brooding self-portraits receive a lot of attention, too. People are fascinated with the artist who eventually came to cut off his own ear. Among the over 2,100 artworks he created was a simple portrait of a peasant woman. Painted in 1885 just before the artist’s move from his native land to the artistic circles of Paris, it features a rather dour young woman in a voluminous white cap.
When X-rayed, an image of the artist—complete with hat, kerchief, and ear—appeared. Van Gogh was known to reuse canvases by turning them over and painting on the reverse side. The museum believes the self-portrait was painted after Head of a Peasant Woman while the artist was living among the Impressionists in Paris. At the time, his work was becoming more colorful and expressive. Several other self-portraits painted on the reverse of other works date to the period. The self-portrait was probably covered by layers of glued cardboard in the early 20th century. Removing the cardboard will be a very delicate process, and currently experts are considering how it might be done. For now, museum visitors will be able to enjoy an x-ray image on a lightbox next to the “original” painting.
A routine X-ray revealed the phantom sketch on the back of the canvas under layers of paste and cardboard.
Learn more about this fascinating discovery below.