Cincinnati Art Museum conservation coordinator Serena Urry was conducting a routine inspection when she noticed something odd about Paul Cézanne’s Still Life with Bread and Eggs.
Paul Cézanne was a French painter, born in 1839 (died 1906), known especially for his works that represent the transition from Impressionism to Cubism.
Serena Urry noticed small cracks. But the presence of these cracks was not unusual in a work of art of the 1865s. But they were concentrated in two areas of the painting, rather than distributed over the entire canvas, as would have been normal. What also attracted attention was also the presence of white flashes that stood out, being in contrast to the dark color palette, specific to the “dark” period of the French painter.
“I thought there might be something down there and we should check,” Urry said, according to CNN.
“I was still trying to figure out what they were…then I turned 90 degrees”
The specialist asked a local medical company to bring an X-ray scanner to the museum, and a technician checked several portions of the more than 70-centimeter-wide painting. As he checked the images and placed them side by side using Photoshop, Urry noticed some white spots, indicating that there might be more pigment of this color.
“I was still trying to figure out what they were… then I turned 90 degrees… I was alone but I exclaimed out loud Wow!“, she recalls.
When the scanner was rotated, the image of a man appeared: his eyes, hairline and shoulders appeared as black spots. Given the position of the body, Urry and her colleagues at the museum are convinced it is the painter Cézanne himself.
“I think we’re all of the opinion that it’s a self-portrait. He poses in a manner suitable for a self-portrait. In other words: he is looking at us, but his body is turned to one side. If it was a portrait of another person, his position would probably be completely frontal,” the specialist said.
Moments from the early career of a great artist
If this is the explanation, then the staff discovered a picture of the painter as a youth, when he was around 20 years old, and the era of still life paintings was already over. In fact, Cézanne is known for making over 24 self-portraits, but almost all of them were completed after the 1860s and were executed, to a large extent, in pencil.
For an even more thorough analysis, several specialists were co-opted into the team. Peter Jonathan Bell, curator of the museum’s European Paintings, Sculptures and Drawings section, said he was trying to find out as much information as possible about this portrait. But the team is still at the beginning of the research.
“This includes working with experts on Cézanne’s work from around the world to find out who took the picture and to do even more imaging and technical analysis. These help us understand how the portrait was made and what it originally looked like. Taken together, this information could help us understand moments in the early career of this great artist,” said Jonathan Bell.