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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 14: August 2022
Epistle 323 words
+ Visual Art: Painting
By Kendall Johnson


On the Occasion of Your Latest Reveal


Hidden Self-Portrait (circa 1887) by Vincent van Gogh
X-ray image of hidden painting, a self-portrait
(circa 1887) by Vincent van Gogh [1]


Dear Vincent,

Just when we thought we’d figured you out, where you had been, all you had done, now science has turned up a new twist. Concerning your Head of a Peasant Woman (1885),[2] from your early period, still in the dark north. With no money, you’d retreated to your parents’ house in Neuen, working on a set of portraits preliminary to Potato Eaters—those enigmatic souls in the dark sharing nurture. As you wrote to your brother, about those grim times:

It’s hard, terribly hard to keep working when people don’t buy, and literally to have to pay for one’s paint out of what wouldn’t be excessive just for food and drink and lodgings alone, living frugally. And on top of that, the models.[3]

Flash forward one hundred and thirty-seven years to 2022. Head of a Peasant Woman is being x-rayed preliminary to exhibit, a part of your œuvres complètes. Lo and behold your ghostly self-portrait peers at us out of the green fog of radiation. We are shocked, delighted to find your underpainting. It is your unmistakable visage, yet—as usual—again different. You gaze back at us from under one of the supposed anchors that we have used to navigate our futures, and you lead us further beyond.

As audience, we get complacent in our view of the world. We rest in an attitude of “fixedness”—history set in stone. And then something like this. You were up to far more than saving model fees, with your brushes and mirrors. Persisting in spite of the world’s indifference, a man digging into the mystery of all of ourselves. You show us the divinity of the world within, and confront us with the truth that not all is yet revealed.

Still yours,

Your friend,



Publisher’s Notes:

Links retrieved on 21 July 2022:

1. Hidden Van Gogh self-portrait discovered by Jordan Ogg at National Galleries of Scotland (14 July 2022).

See also Ghostly self-portrait of Van Gogh discovered on the back of his painting of a peasant by Martin Baily in The Art Newspaper (14 July 2022):

“Van Gogh sometimes reused canvases, to save money, and this is what almost certainly happened with this work. Two years after completing [Head of a Peasant Woman] he turned the canvas over, using the reverse for a self-portrait.”

2. Head of a Peasant Woman (oil on canvas, 1885) by Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is held in storage by National Galleries Scotland:

This painting is from a series by Van Gogh which focuses on working-class residents of Nuenen, a small farming community in the southern portion of the Netherlands. The woman in the painting is a farm worker, Gordina de Groot. (Source: Hidden Van Gogh self-portrait discovered under ‘peasant woman’ painting by Jennifer Nalewicki in LiveScience [16 July 2022].)

3. From Letter 546 (paragrah 4) to Theo van Gogh, circa 6 December 1885, in Vincent van Gogh: The Letters:

Kendall Johnson
Issue 14, August 2022

grew up in the lemon groves in Southern California, raised by assorted coyotes and bobcats. A former firefighter with military experience, he served as traumatic stress therapist and crisis consultant—often in the field. A nationally certified teacher, he taught art and writing, served as a gallery director, and still serves on the board of the Sasse Museum of Art, for whom he authored the museum books Fragments: An Archeology of Memory (2017), an attempt to use art and writing to retrieve lost memories of combat, and Dear Vincent: A Psychologist Turned Artist Writes Back to Van Gogh (2020). He holds national board certification as an art teacher for adolescent to young adults.

Recently, Dr. Johnson retired from teaching and clinical work to pursue painting, photography, and writing full time. In that capacity he has written five literary books of artwork and poetry, and one in art history. His shorter work has appeared in Literary Hub, Chiron Review, Shark Reef, Cultural Weekly, and Quarks Ediciones Digitales, and was translated into Chinese by Poetry Hall: A Chinese and English Bi-Lingual Journal. His memoir collection, Chaos & Ash, was released from Pelekinesis in 2020, his Black Box Poetics from Bamboo Dart Press in 2021, The Stardust Mirage from Cholla Needles Press in 2022, and his Fireflies Against Darkness and More Fireflies series from Arroyo Seco Press in 2021 and 2022. He serves as contributing editor for the Journal of Radical Wonder.

Author’s website: www.layeredmeaning.com

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Kendall Johnson’s Black Box Poetics is out today on Bamboo Dart Press, an interview by Dennis Callaci in Shrimper Records blog (10 June 2021)

Self Portraits: A Review of Kendall Johnson’s Dear Vincent, by Trevor Losh-Johnson in The Ekphrastic Review (6 March 2020)

On the Ground Fighting a New American Wildfire by Kendall Johnson at Literary Hub (12 August 2020), a selection from his book Chaos & Ash (Pelekinesis, 2020)

A review of Chaos & Ash by John Brantingham in Tears in the Fence (2 January 2021)

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