Hidden van Gogh self portrait found behind another painting

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National Galleries of Scotland senior conservator Lesley Stevenson holds Vincent Van Gogh's "Head of a Peasant Woman" and views an X-ray image of the hidden self-portrait. (Photo by Neil Hanna | Courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland)

Art experts in the United Kingdom have discovered a previously unknown self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh on the back of another painting by the artist. The self-portrait had been hidden from view for more than a century.

The National Galleries of Scotland this week announced that an X-ray of Van Gogh's Head of a Peasant Woman revealed the mysterious image. The self-portrait was on the back of the canvas, covered by layers of glue and cardboard, the galleries said. Conservators had been examining the painting ahead of a forthcoming exhibition. 

Frances Fowle, a senior curator of French art at the National Galleries of Scotland, said these discoveries 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," Fowle said in a statement. "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, according to the National Galleries. He would turn a canvas around and paint on the reverse instead of covering earlier works.

Uncovering the hidden portrait without damaging the "Peasant Woman" may be impossible, the galleries said, but experts in art restoration were researching possible ways to safely remove the glue and cardboard.

"Until then, the world can enjoy the tantalising discovery through a ghostly and utterly compelling x-ray image," the National Galleries said in a news release. "It shows 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."

This story was produced in New York with The Associated Press and Storyful.