The Secret Van Gogh Painting That Lay Hidden for over a Century

Born in Zundert, Netherlands, on March 30, 1853, Vincent Van Gogh produced an astonishing catalogue of masterpieces in his short life that continue to astound art experts to this day. Van Gogh’s work became incredibly popular after his death, fetching record sums at auction. Immortalized as the quintessential tortured artist, van Gogh sadly received little recognition in his lifetime. In this article, we look at the artist’s life and most celebrated works, and the exciting discovery of a van Gogh self-portrait that has been hidden from the world for centuries.

Completed by van Gogh in 1885, Head of a Peasant Woman depicts a somewhat melancholy subject dressed in a coat and bonnet. Inspired by the realism of Courbet and Millet, van Gogh’s early portraits of Dutch peasants were dark and somber in mood, reflecting the harsh lives of their subjects.

In July 2022, art experts discovered a hidden van Gogh self-portrait on the back of Head of a Peasant Woman, covered by layers of cardboard and glue.

Despite his paintings fetching astronomical sums today, van Gogh struggled with poverty throughout his life, and is well known for reusing canvases. In this case, he chose to paint on the reverse. The hidden painting shows a bearded subject in a brimmed hat, wearing a neckerchief tied loosely at the throat.

An Extraordinary Discovery

The National Galleries of Scotland’s extraordinary discovery is reportedly a first for a UK institution. The earlier piece is believed to be van Gogh’s first foray into self-portraiture, which he later became famous for. Visitors to the forthcoming A Taste for Impressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy will be able to view the sketch as an X-ray image through a specially created lightbox.

Experts believe that it may be possible to rescue the earlier painting while keeping Head of a Peasant Woman intact. However, the process of removing the cardboard and glue is an incredibly arduous, painstaking proposition. Art experts are currently researching how this could be achieved without damaging the later painting.

National Galleries’ senior paintings conservator Lesley Stevenson described the discovery as significant, since it adds to what art experts already know about the artist’s life. Stevenson indicated that there was a great deal to think about in terms of the next steps, but added that it was “another little nugget to get us a little bit closer to an incredible artist.”

Vincent van Gogh was born in North Brabant, a predominantly Catholic province in the Netherlands. He was the oldest surviving child of Anna Cornelia Carbentus and Theodorus van Gogh, a Dutch Reformed church minster.

Rigid and Religious

Van Gogh’s mother came from a wealth family from The Hague. She was rigid and religious, emphasizing the importance of family to the point where it became almost suffocating. His father’s salary was meager, but the church provided him and his family with a home, two cooks, a maid, a gardener, and a horse and carriage.

As a child, Vincent van Gogh was reportedly serious and thoughtful. He had five surviving siblings, though remained in contact with just two of them in later life, namely his sister Willemina, and his brother Theo, who he was reportedly very close to.

When Vincent van Gogh was sent to boarding school at Zevenbergen, this marked the start of an unhappy period in his childhood, causing him to feel abandoned, prompting pleas to return home. Instead, van Gogh’s parents sent him to another school, where he became even more unhappy.

An Early Interest in Art

Van Gogh’s interest in art started early, and he was encouraged to draw by his mother. Van Gogh had lessons with renowned Parisian artist Constant Cornelis Huijsmans, but the young boy’s profound unhappiness apparently overshadowed the lessons.

Following a stint at an art dealer in The Hague, van Gogh transferred to London, where he started a happier chapter in his life. By the age of 20 he was earning more than his father. For a while he flitted between France and England, before returning to the Netherlands and studying at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, where he learned anatomy, and the standard rules of perspective and modelling.

Once van Gogh’s art career took off, he was prolific, creating almost 900 paintings in a decade. Van Gogh lived with debilitating mental illness through much of his lifetime, his symptoms including seizures, hallucinations, and depression, which could be severe at times, leading him to spend years in and out of hospital. Following the infamous incident in which he severed his ear with a razor, van Gogh was admitted to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole hospital, known in those days as an “asylum.” Diagnosed with “acute mania with generalized delirium,” it was here that he painted the masterpiece, Starry Night. Other famous van Gogh paintings include Sunflowers, Café Terrace at Night, Irises, The Bedroom, and Wheatfield With Crows.

Vincent van Gogh died on July 29, 1890, at just 37 years old. Unable to come to terms with his absence, van Gogh’s beloved brother Theo died the following year.

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