Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
Cincinnati Art Museum’s chief conservator Serena Urry was conducting a routine inspection of the institution’s prized Paul Cézanne painting “Still Life with Bread and Eggs” when she noticed something “odd.”
For an artwork dating back to 1865, the appearance of small cracks was no surprise. But they were concentrated in two specific areas, rather than distributed evenly across the canvas. What’s more, they revealed tiny flashes of white that stood out in contrast to the brooding palette of the French painter’s so-called “dark” period.
“I thought there might be something underneath that we should look at,” Urry said in a video interview.
Painted in 1865, Paul Cézanne’s “Still Life with Bread and Eggs” has been in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection for almost 70 years. Credit: Courtesy Cincinnati Art Museum
The conservator asked a local medical company to bring a portable X-ray machine to the museum, where a technician scanned the 2.5-foot-wide oil painting in several parts. As Urry stitched the series of images together digitally using Photoshop, she saw “blotches of white” that indicated the presence of more white lead pigment.
“I was trying to figure out what the heck they were… then I just turned it (90 degrees),” she recalled. “I was all alone but I think I said ‘wow’ out loud.”
When the scan was rotated vertically, an image of a man emerged, his eyes, hairline and shoulders appearing as dark patches. Given the figure’s body position, Urry and her museum colleagues believe it to be Cézanne himself.
Here, the X-ray image has been flipped horizontally for a side-by-side comparison with “Still Life with Bread and Eggs.”
“I think everyone’s opinion is that it’s a self-portrait … He’s posed in the way a self-portrait would be: in other words, he’s looking at us, but his body is turned.
“If it were a portrait of someone other than himself, it would probably be full frontal,” she added.
Should that be the case, it would be among the earliest recorded depictions of the painter, who was in his mid-20s when the still life was completed. Cézanne is known to have produced more than two dozen self-portraits, though almost all of them were completed after the 1860s and were largely executed in pencil.
“We are at the outset of the process of discovering as much as we can about the portrait,” said Peter Jonathan Bell, the museum’s curator of European paintings, sculpture and drawings, over email. “This will include collaborating with Cézanne experts around the world to identify the sitter, and undertaking further imaging and technical analysis to help us understand what the portrait would have looked like and how it was made.
“Stitched together, this information may add to our understanding of a formative moment in the early career of this great artist.”
Part of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection since 1955, “Still Life with Bread and Eggs” was painted in a realist style — inspired by …….