The Edinburgh museum announced its exciting discovery this week after X-rays showed that van Gogh had painted the head of a man on the reverse side of a 1885 painting titled “Head of a Peasant Woman.” The image of someone looking very much like 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 Welsh painter Augustus John. She couldn’t have known that she was purchasing two van Goghs for the price of one. (Fleming’s son — by her husband — was Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond.)
Everything about van Gogh fascinates us. The reasons can seem bottomless. What’s amazing is that, even after every aspect of his life has been subjected to a century-long barrage of scholarship, both scientific and archival, we remain in the dark about so many things.
Did he, for instance, die by suicide, or was he murdered, as his most recent biographers claim? If he was mentally ill, what exactly was his ailment? What medicines 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 yet more questions, and I know I’m not alone.
Why, for instance, was the self-portrait covered in cardboard? Was there something van Gogh-Bonger thought we shouldn’t see — or did she simply know that van Gogh himself considered it unfinished and unworthy of display? (Remember: For almost his entire career the world had been telling him everything he painted was unworthy of display.)
Van Gogh-Bonger’s husband, Theo, the art dealer who was Vincent’s financial and psychological lifeline, died six months after Vincent. Van Gogh-Bonger, who hadn’t known either brother very long, was left not only with a baby boy named Vincent (he was born six months before his namesake’s death at 37), but also with hundreds of unsold van 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 framing it and sending it to the Amsterdam exhibition.
At the time, “Head of a Peasant Woman” — an unflinching, thickly painted portrait of Gordina de Groot — would have been considered the more important work. That’s because it was linked to “The Potato Eaters,” the painting van Gogh considered his most important achievement to date.
He had painted “Head of a Peasant Woman” in Nuenen, the Dutch town where his parents recently moved, in 1885. When he arrived in Nuenen at the end of 1883, relations with his family were tense. But van Gogh decided to stay on because he was in love with the landscape, the local inhabitants and their earthy, hardscrabble lives. He had been reading Emile Zola’s great novel about the rural underclass, “Germinal,” and was under the spell of paintings of farm labor by his hero, Jean-Francois Millet.
In March 1885, his father died suddenly of a heart attack. Van Gogh stayed on in Nuenen and grew close to one peasant family in particular, the de Groots. “When I went to [their] cottage this evening I found the folk eating their meal by the light of the little window instead of under the lamp,” he wrote to Theo in early May. “Oh, it was astonishingly beautiful.”
The two women in the tableau, he added, were “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 fell pregnant, van Gogh was accused by the village sexton of being responsible.
The painter denied it, saying he knew from Gordina herself who the father was (a member, he claimed, of the priest’s congregation). But because the sexton went about cautioning locals against sitting for van Gogh and directly warned the painter against being “too familiar with people beneath [his] station,” and because his studio was very close to the sexton’s house, the situation remained awkward, and van Gogh finally left Nuenen for Antwerp in November 1885, and Paris early the next year.
He evidently took the portrait of Gordina de Groot with him. In light of the new discovery, experts’ best guess is that two years later, in Paris, he used the reverse side of the canvas to paint the self-portrait that has just been revealed by X-ray.
Van Gogh actually painted about 20 self-portraits during his time in Paris, and still more after his move to Arles. It was expensive hiring models; his own face was free and he could try out things on himself without having to justify it. But he was surely fascinated, too, by his own developing identity as a painter. If he wasn’t exactly using self-portraits to shore up his confidence, he was definitely expressing curiosity about the strange (and so far unsuccessful) new life he had chosen. Some of his experiments worked. Some no doubt didn’t.
X-rays have revealed other paintings — a seminude and a standing nude, for instance — behind some of van Gogh’s Paris self-portraits, including at least two in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The practice suggests that he was short of canvas and that he perhaps didn’t care to preserve what he had painted earlier. It’s interesting that in this case, he didn’t paint over the head of Gordina, instead preserving her image and simply painting himself on the reverse side. Was there more to their relationship than we know?
In October 1887, soon after painting the newly discovered self-portrait (if the dating is right), van Gogh wrote to his sister Willemien asking for news of the de Groots. “How did that business turn out?” he asked, referring to Gordina’s pregnancy. “Did Sien [Gordina] marry her cousin? And did her child live?”
In fact the child, a son, did live — he was born on Oct. 20, 1885 — but at the time Gordina remained unmarried. (Presumably van Gogh asked about her cousin because he was the one most likely to give the baby the protection of his name.)
But as it turns out, painting on the reverse side of canvases was not unprecedented for van Gogh. According to Bailey, three other Nuenen paintings turned out to be double-sided after cardboard backing was removed by the Dutch conservator Jan Cornelius Traas in 1929. In each case, portraits were discovered. Bailey also reports that “it has long been suspected that there could be something on the hidden side of ‘Head of a Peasant Woman,’ ” implying that this latest discovery may not be quite as surprising as advertised.
Still, speculation is one thing, hard evidence quite another. A new self-portrait by van Gogh is exciting however you look at it.
“To understand all is to forgive all,” van Gogh wrote to his sister (borrowing a phrase from Madame de Staël), “and I believe that if we knew everything we’d arrive at a certain serenity.” Of course, it’s possible to find serenity “even when one knows little — nothing — for certain.” This, he wrote, “is perhaps a better remedy against all ills than what’s sold in the chemist’s.”
Sadly, for much of the time, serenity eluded van Gogh. But I think he experienced it — in addition to a lot of excitement — while painting. What’s wonderful is that we can find serenity (along with an array of other emotions) in front of the pictures he left us — of which we now have one more than we thought.
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