(CNN) – Serena Urey, senior curator of the Cincinnati Art Museum, was doing a routine inspection of the institution’s prized Paul Cézanne painting Still Life with Bread and Eggs (Le pain et les œufs) when she noticed something was “off.”
For a work of art from 1865, the appearance of small cracks is not surprising. But it was concentrated in two specific areas, rather than evenly distributed across the canvas. In addition, they show small white flashes that contrast with the somber painting of the “dark” period of the French painter.
“I thought there might be something below that we should look at,” Urey said in the video interview.
The curator asked a local medical company to bring a portable X-ray machine to the museum, where a technician scanned the 30-inch-wide oil painting in multiple parts. By digitally piecing together the series of images using Photoshop, Urry saw “white spots” that indicated more white lead pigment was present.
“I was trying to figure out what the hell they were…so I turned the corner[90 degrees],” he recalls. “I was alone, but I think I said ‘wow’ out loud.”
As I rotated the scanner vertically, an image of a man with his eyes, hairline, and shoulders appeared as dark spots. Due to the location of the figure’s body, Ury and his colleagues at the museum believe it to be Cézanne himself.
“I think everyone’s opinion is that it’s a self-portrait… It’s posed like a self-portrait would be: I mean, he’s looking at us, but his body is upside down.”
“If it’s a picture of someone other than him, it’s probably from the front,” he added.
If so, it would be one of the earliest recorded portraits of the painter, who was in his mid-twenties when he finished the still life. Cézanne is known to have made more than twenty self-portraits, although almost all of them were completed after the 1860s and executed mostly in pencil.
“We’re beginning the process of finding out as much information as we can about the picture,” Peter Jonathan Bell, Museum Curator of European Painting, Sculpture, and Drawing, explains by email. “Among other things, we will be collaborating with Cézanne experts from around the world to identify the sitter and conduct more imagery and technical analysis to help us understand what the image will look like and how it was produced.”
“Together, this information may contribute to our understanding of the formative moment in the early career of this great artist.”
Part of the Cincinnati Museum of Art’s collection since 1955, Still Life with Bread and Eggs is painted in a realistic style—inspired by the Spanish and Flemish Baroque periods—that Cézanne experimented with early in his career. He later developed a more colorful aesthetic under the direction of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, before leading the more structured style of the Post-Impressionist movement.
By the mid-1860s, Cézanne was developing a new technique of rough painting, often using a palette knife to apply colour. But whether his hidden portrait was a false experiment, or whether he simply repurposed an old canvas to save money, remains a matter of speculation.
Another possibility, Urey ventured, is that the painter suddenly became inspired and “needed a canvas,” a theory supported by the fact that he didn’t seem to have removed much paint before starting work.
“Obviously he didn’t scratch it,” Urey explained.
Many other questions remain, such as the colors Cézanne used and how complete his original picture was. Museum experts hope to analyze the painting using advanced scans, such as multispectral imaging, which can reveal underlying brushwork by assessing textures invisible to the naked eye. X-ray spectroscopy, meanwhile, could reveal which chemical elements were present, and thus which color pigments the artist used.
“We’re hoping to contact colleagues in the preservation and motion picture world to see if we have access to other equipment,” Urey explains.
However, for now, the museum is looking forward to showing “Still Life with Bread and Eggs” again. Since its discovery in May, Urey has cleaned the painting and reduced the varnish on its surface. It will return to public view, along with an X-ray, from December 20.
Subsequent scans and analysis could mean transferring the work to another institution, which poses logistical problems and means that museum visitors may miss seeing one of only two Cézannes in her collection. “You can’t just get in the car and drive it to Chicago,” Urey explains.
He added, “The painting has been there since he painted it, and it’s been there since (we got it) in 1955, so there’s no rush.”
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