During a routine inspection of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s cherished Paul Cézanne work titled Still Life with Bread and Eggs, chief conservator Serena Urry noticed something “odd.” What she found lying beneath the surface is a secret that has remained hidden for almost 160 years.
No work is safe from time, and for this still life piece from 1865, cracking in the paint is expected. However, Urry noticed that these cracks were concentrated in two particular areas, instead of spread throughout the canvas. And, underneath those cracks, starkly contrasting against the painting’s dark color palette, lay glimmers of bright white. The conservator called in a team from a local medical company to take scans of the oil painting with a portable X-ray machine. After piecing together the scans in Photoshop, Urry saw “blotches of white,” meaning there was much more lead white paint than she initially thought. “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.”
Hidden behind the bread in the painting and only shown through scans, a figure appears in white and black splotches. A face quietly hovers behind the glass and a shoulder stealthily extends beyond it, both buried beneath a moody dark background. And what’s even more exciting—it could be a portrait of the artist himself. “I think everyone's opinion is that it's a self-portrait,” explains Urry. “He's posed in the way a self-portrait would be: in other words, he's looking at us, but his body is turned.” She further explained that if it was a portrait of someone else, the subject would most likely be fully turned toward the audience. If this mysterious portrait is indeed of Cézanne, it would be one of the earliest depictions we have of the artist, who was in his mid-20s at the time. As well, it would be one of the few self-portraits not completed in pencil.
Peter Jonathan Bell, the museum's curator of European paintings, sculpture, and drawings, explained that they are actively researching and working to solve the mysterious history of this piece. “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,” Bell states. “Stitched together, this information may add to our understanding of a formative moment in the early career of this great artist.”
During the early part of Cézanne’s career, he used a realist style of painting, as seen in Still Life with Bread and Eggs. But later on, informed by Impressionism, the artist formed a more colorful palette. During the mid-1860s, he also experimented with a coarse painting style by using a palette knife to apply paint.
Many questions that have been raised from looking behind the top coat of paint, including what colors Cézanne used and how complete the portrait is. The question that seems to be asked the most, though, is why? Some have speculated the portrait was an experiment gone wrong, while others have suggested the painter needed to save money by reusing an old canvas. Urry suggests the artist had a sudden spark of inspiration and just “needed a canvas,” explaining, “It's pretty clear that he didn't scrape it down.”
In order to answer these questions, Urry says, “We're hoping to reach out to colleagues in the conservation and curatorial worlds to see if we can get access to other equipment.” If the piece undergoes a series of more advanced scanning processes, experts can better determine what techniques Cézanne employed. Multispectral imaging would analyze all of the textures of the paint, revealing what kind of brushwork was used on the portrait. X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy would also uncover the elemental makeup of the paint, allowing for experts to narrow down what pigments were used.
These processes would most likely involve taking the 2.5-foot-wide oil painting off display for a while and carefully transporting it to another institution, which is not necessarily an easy feat. “You can't just pop it in your car and drive it to Chicago,” says Urry. So, Still Life with Bread and Eggs was put back on display on December 20, 2022, giving Cincinnati Art Museum visitors a chance to see this two-for-one Cézanne painting for a little while longer. Urry explains, “The portrait has been there since he painted it, and it's been there since [we acquired it in] 1955, so there's no rush.”
Still Life with Bread and Eggs by Paul Cézanne is currently on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum. It is also a part of the museum’s exhibition One Each: Still Lifes by Cézanne, Pissarro and Friends, an audio exhibition. You can learn even more about Still Life with Bread and Eggs on the museum’s website.