Cincinnati Art Museum has many paintings adorning its walls. However, a recent find in one of Paul Cezanne’s works has vaulted the museum into the spotlight. In this article, we’ll look at this discovery, its creator, and what it tells us about Cezanne as a painter and his artistic past.
The Cracks Start to Show
Serena Urry, chief conservator at the Cincinnati Art Museum, typically inspects the displays to ensure they’re in proper order. Old art pieces can degrade over time, and having a professional inspect them helps to avoid this. The museum is home to many paintings done by famous artists over the years.
In one particular painting, Paul Cezanne’s “Still Life with Bread and Eggs,” Urry noticed some cracking occurring on the surface of the painting. It baffled her that the cracks weren’t noticed before now, and she was concerned that she was seeing the degradation of the image.
Something Deeper At Play
Old paintings crack from time to time – that’s not a mystery. In the times some of these paintings were done, the oil paints used to layer on the pictures were distinctly different. The difference in drying time led to cracks appearing, especially if the painting was over a certain number of years.
In this case, Urry was worried that the cracking would mean that restoration works would need to be done. For a masterpiece like a Cezanne, they would have to be extremely careful or risk damaging the painting. However, something else stood out in this painting that made her rethink whether it was just regular cracking.
Why Is a Paul Cezanne So Valuable Anyway?
Art history majors will immediately recognize Cezanne as a name they’re familiar with. Paul Cezanne was an artist who lived between 1839 and 1906 and was instrumental in influencing the avant-garde movement in modern art. His work serves as a bridge between contemporary art and cubism.
“Still Life with Bread and Eggs” is a simple composition and is indicative of this early work. Cezanne rarely dated any of his works but did date this one. We know that this piece dates from 1865, but the actual work itself is not what’s surprising about this piece. It’s what’s underneath it.
A Strange Pattern of Cracking
Let’s go back to Urry and the cracks in the painting. The cracks seemed to follow a peculiar pattern. As Urry knew, paint cracks usually occur when the top layer of an oil painting and the bottom layer have different drying times. Typically, as a piece ages, the cracks spread out all over the canvas.
Surprisingly, the cracks did not spread out all along the painting. On the contrary, these cracks were focused on two different areas, making them seem to follow a pattern. The cracks also revealed a white base, which peeked through the dull colors of the original painting. This white appeared to be the base of something else, but what?
What’s Underneath The Painting?
Urry’s curious mind naturally prompted her to get a local X-ray team to check out the painting. The hunch she had was that there was probably something underneath it. The X-ray team did pick something up underneath the surface of the image. Now, the question was what they were seeing.
With a bit of Photoshop work and the X-ray negatives, Urry could piece together that there was a lot more white behind the dull base of the painting than she initially expected. On further investigation, she saw a perplexing image that she wasn’t sure she could decode. It looked unlike anything she had ever seen before.
Try Turning It Around
Urry dabbled with the painting for a bit. “Still Life with Bread and Eggs” is a huge painting, and the X-ray team had to do it in quadrants. The stitching she did in Photoshop helped her to get a clearer picture of the overall image. But even then, it looked like her hunch might have been wrong. Unless…
Her final printing came out of the printer at a 90-degree rotation, and she was stunned as she found herself staring into a ghostly face gazing at her from the 158-year canvas. The original sketching for the overlying painting occupies two quadrants, but the other two reveal the hints of a face.
Who Was Cezanne Painting?
Urry looked at the painting and noticed some features that made her think she knew the subject. In a typical painting, the subject faces the canvas straight on. The audience gets to see the features of the subject as if they were walking out of the image. That wasn’t the case here.
Cezanne’s approach to this painting was done with the subject facing the canvas but with the body turned. “I think everyone’s opinion is that it’s a self-portrait,” Urry stated. If she’s right, this might be one of the few self-portraits we have of Cezanne, who would be in his twenties when he completed this one.
Learning About Cezanne’s Past
To say that Cezanne had it rough in the early part of his career is an understatement. He was rejected by several places in Paris, including the Salon des Refuses. He developed a love of realism during this period thanks to his education at Academie Suisse and the influence of artists such as Corbet and Delacroix.
These artists called for an unblemished look at reality – something that Cezanne encapsulated in his still-life paintings and the views of the countryside during his early painting life. Yet life was hard for the young painter since his allowance was small compared to those of more opulent families involved in the art scene.
A Potential Explanation
Based on what we know about Cezanne and his ability to support himself financially, it’s likely that the self-portrait was painted over simply because he couldn’t afford a new one. Painting supplies in France in the period weren’t expensive, but dedicating an entire canvas to an experimental painting might have been too much for Cezanne.
This painting was signed and dated by Cezanne, but it offers a unique glimpse into the intimate life of the artist. Cezanne, at this moment, is fleeing his controlling father and trying to be an artist on his own terms. This experiment is a look into his process of breaking into the art world.
Is It Really a Self-Portrait?
While Urry believes that the painting is one of Cezanne himself based on how he’s standing and the orientation of the subject, it’s far from a foregone conclusion. Some Cezanne scholars are skeptical since they know of some of his works with similar traits that weren’t self-portraits.
“Cezanne did a very famous series of portraits of his uncle where you could see some physiognomic similarities there, too,” says Peter Jonathan Bell, the Curator of European Paintings, Sculpture, and Drawings. This explains why the Cincinnati Art Museum is working alongside specialists and experts to verify who is in the painting.
Many Master Artists Reused Canvases
To us, in the current day, it seems as though Cezanne may have reused a canvas or hidden a failed painting underneath it. Yet Cezanne is far from the only master artist to have done this, and he isn’t even the oldest candidate for having a hidden painting in another one.
Pablo Picasso’s “The Crouching Woman” has a landscape painted beneath it that was only uncovered recently. Underneath the altarpiece “The Virgin of the Rocks” lays several discarded sketches that Da Vinci didn’t use in his final composition. Reusing a surface for painting is a tried and true technique utilized by many masters of the craft.
Cezanne’s Later Work Is Much More Colorful
For those interested in the artist’s journey, Cezanne has had a pretty amazing one. From his earliest forays into still life painting and this failed self-portrait (we think) impression, he evolved as an artist. It’s suggested that this was due to his later friendship with Pissarro.
After agreeing to work with Pissarro in Pontoise, Cezanne adopted him as a mentor, learning from him. Pissarro is noted to have told him to delve into the three primary colors more, and he left his dark, moody backgrounds behind. If he had painted a later work on this canvas, Urry might not have noticed the white area behind it.
Researching The Painting’s History
We know a little bit about the painting, but there’s so much more for us to uncover. Luckily, science has a way for us to do that. With modern technology like macro X-ray fluorescence analysis (MA-XRF) and Layer Amplification, colors and shades that would be invisible beneath a painting now light up like daylight.
The downside of these methods is that they usually require immovable technological pieces. This means that the painting would have to be carried out of the museum, which has its own protocols to ensure it doesn’t get damaged. This could slow down work on the painting, but eventually, we’ll learn more about it.
A Hidden Painting But Not?
Many “hidden” paintings discovered in recent years come from older periods. Hiring another painter to touch up (or censor) portrayals was common in the old days. In such a case, the older paintings would be painted over the new ones. Most hidden images are of this type – the pentimenti.
Cezanne’s painting is different from these in specific ways. His painting is unfinished and wasn’t covered by a restorer. Instead, it’s been painted over by the artist himself. If this was done because Cezanne didn’t have access to a new canvas, maybe he regretted his decision.
The Difference in Cezanne’s Modern Self-Portraits
Cezanne eventually painted new self-portraits created in his modern style, but the difference between the ones we know and the one beneath the original painting is stark. His new pictures show vibrant hues, with vivid backgrounds behind a pensive Cezanne contemplating the canvas.
The older “self-portrait,” from what we can make out, is unsure. It’s possible Cezanne attempted the self-portrait after painting portraits for others and abandoned it because he couldn’t capture what he wanted to. We don’t have enough data as yet to make a definitive statement on the nuanced difference between them.
How Much is a Cezanne Worth?
As we mentioned before, Cezanne’s work transcends the art world. His transition from the old, traditional realism style to something more modern is unique. His influences on contemporary art cannot be understated. Combine these with the age of the painting, and they can be pretty expensive.
Some collectors have been recorded paying as much as $100 million for a Cezanne. The most expensive one sold to date went for $250 million at auction. Because of this worth, examining this particular painting is so important. We could learn much from Cezanne’s initial work and maybe even see his motivation to be an artist.
Cezanne and Painting In Color
As Cezanne aged, his paintings took on that darker hue once again. Scholars note that he would always try for colorful images, but they would combine the bright shades of his middle period and the darker colors of his early adulthood. This suggestion is reflected in his letter to his son, Paul.
“Finally, I want to tell you that as a painter, I am becoming more clairvoyant to nature, but that it is always very difficult for me to realize my feelings,” Cezanne said. “I cannot reach the intensity that unfolds before my senses; I do not possess that wonderful richness of color that animates nature.”
Seeing Paintings Side By Side
We in the modern world are privileged to see the paintings of older masters in a new light. Cezanne’s “Still Life with Bread and Eggs” is one of his early works, but it shows the type of master artist he would develop into later in life.
The exhibition that the Cincinnati Art Museum is currently running has both the original work and the X-ray image of the underlying painting next to each other. It’s an excellent example of letting technology help us appreciate art and uncover the secrets it has under its surface.