The mysterious image of the artist – compete with intense stare, neckerchief and left ear, which he later cut off in a rage – was revealed when conservators took an X-ray of his painting, Head of a Peasant Woman.
The self-portrait was found on the back of the canvas, where it had been covered up with cardboard and layers of glue.
Finding the hidden work of Van Gogh, which is believed to be a first for a UK institution, has been hailed as an “incredibly rare moment” with the portrait being a “gift for Scotland”.
A “ghostly” image of the X-ray will now go on show at the forthcoming exhibition A Taste For Impressionism – which opens on July 30 at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh – where it will be displayed in a special lightbox at the centre of the display.
Professor Frances Fowle, senior curator of French art at the National Galleries of Scotland, 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.”
Van Gogh often re-used canvases to save money. However, instead of painting over earlier works, he would turn the canvas around and work on the reverse.
Experts believe it may be possible to uncover the hidden self-portrait, but the process of removing the glue and cardboard will require delicate conservation work, with research ongoing into how to fully expose the painting without harming Head of a Peasant Woman.
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 work of the eternally beguiling artist.
Later in date than the Head of a Peasant Woman, the hidden painting is likely to have been made during a key moment in Van Gogh’s career, when he was exposed to the work of the French Impressionists after moving to Paris.
The experience had a profound effect on the artist and was a major influence on the more colourful and expressive style of painting he pursued.
Head of a Peasant Woman entered the NGS collection in 1960, as part of the gift of an Edinburgh lawyer, Alexander Maitland, which he made in memory of his wife Rosalind.
The work was earlier owned by Evelyn St Croix Fleming, whose son, Ian, became the creator of James Bond.
Dating from an early period in Van Gogh’s career, Head of a Peasant Woman depicts a resident from the town of Nuenen in the south of the Netherlands, where the artist lived from December 1883 to November 1885.
Painted in March or April 1885, it seems to be a likeness of Gordina de Groot who was also a model for Van Gogh’s early masterpiece The Potato Eaters, which he completed that year.
Her facial features, white cap and simple work clothes are sketched in oil, using broad brushstrokes and earthy colours typical of French realist artists such as Jean-François Millet, whom Van Gogh greatly admired.
In 1886 , the artist moved to Paris to be closer to his brother Theo, who was an early supporter of the Impressionists. Exposed to the work of this revolutionary group of artists, Van Gogh lightened his palette and experimented with broken brushwork. At the studio of Fernand Cormon, where he took classes in painting, he met avant-garde artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Emile Bernard.
He also encountered the work of Georges Seurat and Paul Gauguin, under whose influence he began to paint more expressively, using brighter colours.
In the summer of 1887, Van Gogh was experimenting with painting portraits, using friends and also himself as a model. Theo was out of town and unable to assist financially, so Van Gogh re-used canvases to save money.
Van Gogh died in 1890 and his brother followed six months later, at which point the artist’s entire oeuvre was left to Theo’s widow, Jo Van Gogh-Bonger.
Probably around 1905, when Head of a Peasant Woman was lent to an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the decision was made to stick the canvas down on cardboard prior to framing. At this time, it is believed the painting was considered more “finished” than the Van Gogh self-portrait, with the piece remaining hidden from view since then.
Once revealed, the self-portrait will be part of a group of several such works painted on the back of earlier canvases from the Nuenen period.
Five examples are in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, with records confirming that the cardboard was removed from three of their Nuenen pictures in 1929, with the hidden portraits then revealed.
In 1998, Van Gogh’s last self-portrait, which depicts the artist without a beard and which was completed shortly before his death, fetched $71 million at auction in New York, with the tiny work at the time being the third most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.
A Taste For Impressionism will focus on the 19th century Scottish collectors who had the foresight to invest in the work of the movement’s artists, with the exhibition also including Monet and Gauguin, among others.
The collectors bought up pieces at a relatively cheap prices at a time when the artists were pilloried by the press for their breakthrough style.
Many of the collectors had made their fortune from industry and wanted “edgy” works by contemporary artists, with several now-influential and revered paintings bought by Scots.