Van Gogh has been spotted in Scotland. No, this isn’t a Loch Ness-like apparition but the manifestation of the likeness of someone with an equally mythic status. A self-portrait by the man himself has been found on the back of a small painting called Head of a Peasant Woman. Discovered by an X-ray during a routine maintenance and cataloging process, the portrait, estimated to date from after his move to Paris in 1886, is invisible, having been sealed inside its frame for years.
This self-portrait is hardly some kind of lost masterpiece whose incomplete and inaccessible status will forever be a tantalizing mystery of flouted potential. It’s more like a bonus edition of Antiques Roadshow for the art world, individuals and institutions alike, part of the worldwide scavenger hunt for undiscovered Van Goghs in attics, basements and collections. And, of course, it’s a thrill for conservators who will be working painstakingly on clearing gunk away from the image.
Van Gogh made a collection of self-portraits and he looks pretty wan and unhappy in all of them. Clearly, he preferred the woman’s portrait on the other side. There are five other self-portraits from roughly the same period also on the backs of other canvases currently on show in the Netherlands.
What this discovery grants us is not hitherto unknown biographical or psychological detail, but an understanding of general artistic process that serves to humanise Van Gogh, to make his image less cartoonish, less grandiose, less ridiculous and pathetic. The discovery is significant because it debunks the idea of the great master and his masterpieces, the genius whose every daubing contains something that fascinates, that draws the eye or moves the art form forward.
Even spontaneous-seeming “mad geniuses” such as Van Gogh reuse canvases, paint on both sides and display the better side, rehash and rework and repeat themselves. Although they might never admit it, all artists want their work to be seen by others, and perhaps it became clear to Van Gogh that flowers, night skies and local life had more resonance than too much self-reflection and self-representation from a total unknown. It was an artistic stage that was necessary for him but not for his viewers.
This discovery also counteracts the idea of Van Gogh in particular – and artists in general – as instinctual emotionalists, generating their art through cathartic bursts of creative impulse. Van Gogh has become the softboi king of this archetype, supported by a powerful mythos that portrays him as unlucky in love, career, finances and fate, a doomed genius, crazed and gifted, volatile and vulnerable, an eccentric who went unrecognised, whose self -belief bordered on delusion and who swung between rapture and depression.
It’s moving (and encouraging, if you’re an artist, too) to know that the names we revere can also go down creative paths that don’t work out, lose interest in a piece or simply find their own work a bit blah and not worth pursuing. Beautiful and emotionally charged artworks, which move millions of spectators across thousands of years, are often the result of rehearsal, boredom, rejigging, practice, dissatisfaction. The path to genius is strewn with dozens of mediocre attempts on the backs of canvases, compositions that don’t quite come together, attempted techniques that look somewhat ham-fisted or fads that burned themselves out fast.
If you’re an artist, your studio is your office and you have to clock in repeatedly and for long stretches of time and do your work before anything half-decent comes out, let alone gets completed. This discovery contributes to the idea of Van Gogh as a dedicated artist, someone who had a professional sensibility even if he didn’t “make it” during his lifetime. He didn’t produce perfection every time, in a burst of creative and emotional fusion; he tried something, realised it wasn’t working and tried something else. He did what we all do, regardless of what field we work in. It shows a degree of self-awareness, measure and critical self-appraisal that Van Gogh is not known for.
The discovery of this “hidden” self-portrait also counteracts the hagiographic tendency of art lovers and art historians to impute significance to works that the creators viewed only as prep. The work on the recto side, Head of a Peasant Womanis not a definitive, capital-A artwork but one of a series of studies of local people that Van Gogh made as he worked up to a major piece called The Potato Eaters. So this new portrait is a quickie on the back of a study. Maybe neither side of the canvas was meant to be treated with reverence.
The spicy detail for me is that nobody is saying this rediscovered portrait is expected to be particularly good, beautiful or revelatory once restored. It is not anomalous in terms of Van Gogh’s techniques and inspirations at the time. It has value only because of the novelty of its discovery and its rarity in the art economy; every bit of news gives a tantalising bump to the value of shares in Van Gogh, the brand name. Van Gogh the man, Van Gogh the artist and Van Gogh the industry are three different entities. The industry involves the sellers’ market but also the historians, the commentators, the academics who continually study and reinforce this man’s significance.
Van Gogh the man died over a century ago, in 1890, at the age of only 37, after a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His was an ignominious reality. It is only in the wake of his death that his work has sold at all, let alone for insane prices; Starry Nightheld by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is estimated to be worth $100m. I imagine that, in his wayward, nonconformist way, he’d raise an eyebrow to see the global art world and media in a frenzy at his impoverished self-portrait artist, executed on the back of a peasant study by a man who only suffered and starved when he was alive.