In van Gogh’s hidden self-portrait, intriguing questions about the artist


Vincent van Gogh painted three dozen self-portraits in just 10 years. It really is a lot (there are about the same number of existing paintings by Johannes Vermeer). But now, miraculously, it seems we have one more. Or we can, if conservators at the National Galleries of Scotland succeed in getting it out under a layer of glue and cardboard.

Secret van Gogh self-portrait discovered by X-ray of another painting

The Edinburgh Museum announced its intriguing discovery this week, after X-rays showed van Gogh had painted the head of a man on the back of a 1885 painting entitled “The Head of a Peasant Woman.” The picture of someone very similar to Vincent had been covered in cardboard, most likely by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the wife of his younger brother Theo, in 1905, when she sent “Head of a Peasant Woman” to an important exhibition in Amsterdam. .

The painting was later acquired by Evelyn Fleming on the advice of her lover, the Welshman painter Augustus John. She could not have known she was buying two van Goghs for the price of one. (Fleming’s son – of her husband – was Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond.)

Vincent van Gogh’s early work was mediocre. This exhibition shows how he grew up

Everything about van Gogh fascinates us. The causes may seem bottomless. What’s amazing is that even after all aspects of his life have been exposed to a century-long barrage of science, both scientific and archival, we remain in the dark about so many things.

Did he die by suicide, for example, or was he murdered, as his recent cinemas claim? If he was mentally ill, what was his suffering then exactly? What medication did he take to try to treat his problems, and what effect did they or his illness have on his art? What exactly made him cut off part of his ear and give it to a prostitute in Arles in the south of France?

After this latest revelation, I have even more questions, and I know I’m not alone.

Why, for example, was the self-portrait covered in cardboard? Was there something van Gogh-Bonger thought we should not see – or did she simply know that van Gogh herself considered it unfinished and unworthy to be shown? (Remember: For almost his entire career, the world had told him so everything he painted was unworthy to be shown.)

Van Gogh-Bonger’s husband, Theo, the art dealer who was Vincent’s economic and psychological lifeline, died six months after Vincent. Van Gogh-Bonger, who had not known any of the brothers for quite some time, was left not only with a little boy named Vincent (he was born six months before his namesake’s death at the age of 37), but also with hundreds of unsold of Gogh paintings.

According to Martin Bailey, a van Gogh expert who writes for The Art Newspaper, van Gogh-Bonger probably covered the back of “The Head of a Peasant Woman” (and thus the self-portrait) to make the painting more secure before it was framed. and send it to the Amsterdam exhibition.

At the time, “Head of a Peasant Woman” – an unshakable, thickly painted portrait of Gordina de Groot – would have been considered the more important work. It is because it was linked to the “Potato Eaters” that the painting van Gogh considered his most important achievement to date.

He had painted “The Head of a Peasant Woman” in Nuenen, the Dutch town where his parents recently moved to, in 1885. When he arrived in Nuenen in late 1883, relations with his family were strained. But van Gogh decided to stay because he was in love with the countryside, the locals and their earthly, hard life. He had read Emile Zola’s great novel about the rural underclass, “Germinal”, and was enchanted by paintings of agricultural work by his hero, Jean-Francois Millet.

In March 1885, his father died suddenly of a heart attack. Van Gogh remained in the Nuenen and grew close to one peasant family in particular, the Groots. “When I went to [their] cottage tonight, I found the people who ate their meal by the light from the small window instead of under the lamp, ”he wrote to Theo in early May. “Oh, it was amazingly beautiful.”

The two women in the tableau, he added, had “almost exactly the same color as dark green soap.” He wanted to paint them. The young Gordina de Groot was one of these two women. She sat for several paintings by van Gogh. When she later became pregnant, van Gogh was accused by the village man of being responsible.

The painter denied it, saying that from Gordina himself he knew who the father was (a member, he claimed, of the pastor’s congregation). But because the sixteen went around warning the locals against sitting in front of van Gogh and directly warning the painter against being “too familiar with people downstairs” [his] station, ”and because his studio was very close to the caretaker’s house, the situation remained awkward, and van Gogh finally left Nuenen for Antwerp in November 1885 and Paris early next year.

He apparently took the portrait of Gordina de Groot with him. In the light of the new discovery, the experts’ best guess is that two years later, in Paris, he used the back of the canvas to paint the self-portrait that has just been revealed by X-ray.

Monet’s towering occupation

Van Gogh actually painted about 20 self-portraits during his time in Paris, and even more after his move to Arles. These were expensive rental models; his own face was free and he could try things on himself without having to justify it. But he was certainly also fascinated by his own evolving identity as a painter. If he did not exactly use self-portraits to boost his self-confidence, he certainly expressed curiosity about the strange (and so far unsuccessful) new life he had chosen. Some of his experiments worked. Some no doubt did not.

X-rays have revealed other paintings – a seminude and a standing nude, for example – behind some of van Gogh’s Paris self-portraits, including at least two at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Practice suggests that he lacked canvas and that he may not have cared to preserve what he had painted earlier. Interestingly, in this case, he did not paint over Gordina’s head, instead preserving her image and simply painting himself on the back. Was there more to their relationship than we know?

In October 1887, shortly after painting the newly discovered self-portrait (if the dating is correct), van Gogh wrote to his sister Willemien asking for news of the Groots. “How did that business go?” he asked, referring to Gordina’s pregnancy. “Did See [Gordina] marry his cousin? And did her child live? ”

In fact, the child, a son, was alive – he was born on October 20, 1885 – but at that time Gordina remained unmarried. (Presumably van Gogh asked about his cousin because he was the one who would most likely give the child the protection of his name.)

But as it turns out, painting on the back of canvases was not unique to van Gogh. According to Bailey, three other Nuenen painters turned out to be double-sided after the cardboard back was removed by Dutch conservator Jan Cornelius Traas in 1929. In each case, portraits were discovered. Bailey also reports that “it has long been suspected that there might be something on the hidden side of ‘Head of a Peasant Woman'”, suggesting that this latest discovery may not be quite as surprising as advertised.

Yet speculation is one thing, hard evidence is something entirely different. A new self-portrait of van Gogh is exciting no matter how you look at it.

“To understand everything is to forgive everything,” van Gogh wrote to his sister (borrowing a sentence from Madame de Staël), “and I think that whose we knew everything, we wanted to reach a certain serenity. ” Of course, it is possible to find serenity “even when one knows little – nothing – with certainty.” This, he wrote, “is perhaps a better remedy for all ills than that sold in the pharmacy.”

Unfortunately, most of the time, van Gogh avoided the serenity. But I think he experienced it – beyond a lot of excitement – while painting. The wonderful thing is that we can find serenity (along with a number of other emotions) in front of the images he left us – of which we now have one more than we thought.

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