Hidden below an 1865 Paul Cézanne still life titled “Still Life With Bread and Eggs,” the Cincinnati Museum of Art (CMA) discovered what might be one of the Post-Impressionist painter’s first self-portraits. The newly revealed work depicts Cézanne in his mid-20s, decades before he developed his signature brushstroke and began painting idyllic countrysides of his native France. At the time, the artist was deep in his “dark period,” an artistic era Cézanne defined with solemn and disturbing subject matter and a gloomy color palette.
“Still Life With Bread and Eggs” has been in CMA’s collection since 1955. The museum hung the painting in an exhibition this spring, and after it was taken down, Chief Conservator Serena Urry examined it for treatment. She noticed that the canvas’s cracks, which are typical of paintings this old, were unusually placed — instead of scattered across the canvas, they were concentrated in two spots. Additionally, the cracks seemed to reveal underlying white paint.
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“I had a hunch,” Urry said in a museum statement about her discovery. She decided to investigate further and called in a team to X-ray the painting.
When Urry flipped the X-ray image 90 degrees, she revealed a clearly defined portrait.
There are few self-portraits of Cézanne from this early period in his career, but CMA thinks this might count as one of the artist’s first. Urry told CNN that the sitter’s body position is a tell-tale sign that the artist was painting himself. When Cézanne created portraits of other people, the sitter usually faced him head-on; here, the subject sits at an angle.
CMA’s curator of European paintings, sculpture, and drawings Peter Jonathan Bell said the museum wants to continue investigating the portrait’s subject, hopefully in partnership with another institution and leading scholars of Cézanne.
The museum also plans on studying the painting itself. To determine the colors of the underlying image, for example, the museum will need to use technology more advanced than a digital X-ray, such as multi-spectral imaging.
After the museum conducts a deeper investigation into the portrait hidden below, Bell says it will publish its research and perhaps create a special exhibition.
“We went from having two Cézannes to three with this discovery,” Urry said. With the new knowledge of a hidden portrait, “Still Life With Bread and Eggs” will go back on view December 20.