A routine cataloging procedure of a painting by Vincent van Gogh at the National Galleries in Scotland yielded an unexpected discovery: a hidden self-portrait on the back of the canvas. The portrait was revealed while conservationists were conducting X-ray analysis of Head of a Peasant Woman as part of a cataloging exercise in preparation for an upcoming exhibition. Once the exhibit opens, visitors will be able to view the X-ray image through a specially crafted lightbox at the center of the display.
As I’ve reported previously, X-ray imaging techniques are a well-established tool to help analyze and restore valuable paintings because the rays’ higher frequency means they pass right through paintings without harming them. X-ray imaging can reveal anything that has been painted over a canvas or where the artist may have altered the original vision.
For instance, Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window was first subjected to X-ray analysis in 1979 and revealed the image of a Cupid lurking under the overpainting. And in 2020, a team of Dutch and French scientists used high-energy X-rays to unlock Rembrandt’s secret recipe for his famous impasto technique, believed to be lost to history.