Vincent, I Hope You’re Smiling – Perhaps A Bit Smugly – About This

The Dutch post-impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh was born in 1853 and died in 1890.

In 1888 he wrote to his brother Theo,

“I can do nothing about it if my paintings don’t sell.

“The day will come, though, when people will see that they’re worth more than the cost of the paint and my subsistence, very meagre in fact that we put into them.”

And van Gogh’s paintings didn’t sell – there are stories of him selling “one” painting in his lifetime or a “handful” of paintings, a poor showing for an artist who created more than 850 paintings and nearly 1,300 drawings and sketches in an artistic career that lasted only 10 years.

No one, including van Gogh, considered him a successful artist.

So I hope van Gogh is smiling over the excitement this recent story is creating:

The image below on the right is an x-ray of the back of the image on the left:

The image on the left, according to the article is: 

“…van Gogh’s Head of a Peasant Woman, an 1885 study for a larger painting, The Potato Eaters, widely considered one of Van Gogh’s masterpieces.”

The image on the right “had been hiding in plain sight, inside a painting that had belonged to the National Galleries of Scotland for over 60 years.”

The “hiding in plain sight” image on the right is believed to be a van Gogh self-portrait, discovered by a conservator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art when she x-rayed Head of a Peasant Woman ahead of an exhibition – a routine step.

According to this article:

“…the x-ray showed ‘a bearded sitter in a brimmed hat with a neckerchief loosely tied at the throat.  He fixes the viewer with an intense stare, the right side of his face in shadow and his left ear clearly visible.’”

Back to the Washington Post:

“Hidden under layers of glue and cardboard was another painting on its reverse – a portrait of a man in a hat with a scarf tied around his throat.

“‘I saw it then and there,’ senior curator Frances Fowle said.  ‘It was a self-portrait by Van Gogh, on the back of our painting.’”

Why would van Gogh have painted something on the back of another painting?

“Van Gogh was known to reuse canvasses because of lack of money, and Scottish conservators believe that was the case here.”

Lack of money was also a reason van Gogh painted so many self-portraits – “no fewer than 35,” according to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which has examined the x-ray of the newly uncovered painting and deemed it “almost certainly” a van Gogh self-portrait.

Van Gogh couldn’t afford to pay artist models, so he painted himself, experimenting with colors and light and techniques, as in this self-portrait from 1887:   

Van Gogh self-portrait, 1887, the Detroit Institute of Arts.

According to various articles:

“Van Gogh became his own best sitter, saying, ‘I purposely bought a good enough mirror to work from myself, for want of a model.’”

So what looks to be a major discovery was painted, and on the back of the canvas another image was painted to save money on canvasses.  By an artist who frequently painted himself, because he was too poor to hire actual models.

And – an artist who gave many of his paintings and drawings to others, only for them to often throw away those gifts.

So, who’s the culprit who covered the self-portrait with cardboard and glue…

And why?

The self-portrait, says this Washington Post article:

“…had been covered in cardboard, most likely by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger [pictured], the wife of van Gogh’s younger brother Theo, in 1905, when she sent Head of a Peasant Woman to an important exhibition in Amsterdam.”

I’m imagining what was going through Johanna’s mind, how excited she was that Head of a Peasant Woman by her dead brother-in-law Vincent was going to be in an important exhibition! 

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, 1889

She turned the painting over, and there’s a…oh.  “Is this another one of those self-portraits by poor old Vincent?  And not even finished?  I’ll just cover it up so it doesn’t distract from the good stuff.”

Johanna sent Head of a Peasant Woman to Amsterdam, and van Gogh’s self-portrait went unseen for over a century.

National Galleries of Scotland said its experts were looking at how to remove the glue and cardboard covering the self-portrait without damaging Head of a Peasant Woman.

The lost-now-found self-portrait x-ray image will be on view at the July 30-November 13 exhibition, A Taste for Impressionism, at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh.

If all this excitement isn’t enough to make Vincent smile, I’ll add this recent story to the mix:

Van Gogh’s Fields Near the Alpilles (1889) was expected to sell for around $45 million at Christie’s Auction House May 2022 auction.

It sold for $51,915,000.

And it joins a list of van Gogh paintings that have sold for millions, including these top five, according to this 2022 article:

Irises; price:  $53.9 million, 1987
A Wheat Field with Cypresses; price:  $57 million, 1993
Portrait of Joseph Roulin; price:  $58 million, 1989
Portrait de l’artiste Sans Barbe; price:  $71.5 million, 1998
Portrait of Dr. Gachet; price:  $82.5 million, 1990

Vincent, I’d say there’s no doubt that people feel that your works are…

“…worth more than the cost of the paint and my subsistence.”

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