A painting which is “almost certainly” a previously unknown self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh has been discovered by the National Galleries of Scotland.
The sensational find is believed to be a first for a UK institution and was revealed by an x-ray taken when art conservators examined Van Gogh’s Head of a Peasant Woman (1885) ahead of the forthcoming exhibition “A Taste for Impressionism”.
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.
Van Gogh often re-used canvases to save money, and instead of painting over earlier works, he would turn the canvas around and work on the reverse.
The x-ray shows a bearded sitter in a brimmed hat with a neckerchief loosely tied at the throat. The portrait has an intense stare with the right side of his face in shadow and his left ear, which he famously cut off in 1888, is clearly visible.
Visitors to the exhibition will be able to see the amazing x-ray image for the first time through a specially crafted lightbox at the centre of the display.
While it may be possible to uncover the hidden self-portrait, 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.
Professor Frances Fowle, the senior curator of French art at the National Galleries of Scotland, said the discovery is an “incredible gift for 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 for Scotland, and one that will forever be in the care of the National Galleries. We are very excited to share this thrilling discovery in our big summer exhibition A Taste for Impressionism, where the x-ray image of the self-portrait will be on view for all to see.”
The condition of the underlying self-portrait is not known but, if it can be uncovered, it is expected to help shed new light on the artist.
Art enthusiasts will be able to view the portrait as part of the A Taste for Impressionism exhibition which will take place between July 30 and November 13.