(CNN) — Cincinnati Museum of Art Chief Curator Serena Urry was conducting 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 “off.”
For a work of art from 1865, the appearance of small cracks was not surprising. But they were concentrated in two specific areas, instead of being distributed evenly across the canvas. In addition, they showed small flashes of white that contrasted with the melancholic palette of the “dark” period of the French painter.
“I thought there might be something below that we should look at,” Urry said in a video interview.
The curator asked a local medical firm to bring a portable X-ray machine to the museum, where a technician scanned the 30-inch-wide oil painting in multiple parts. Digitally stitching together the series of images with Photoshop, Urry saw “white spots” that indicated the presence of more lead white pigment.
“I was trying to figure out what the hell they were…so I just turned it (90 degrees),” he recalls. “I was alone, but I think I said ‘wow’ out loud.”
As the scanner was rotated vertically, the image of a man appeared, his eyes, hairline, and shoulders in the shape of dark spots. Given the position of the figure’s body, Urry and his colleagues at the museum believe that it is Cézanne himself.
“I think everyone’s opinion is that it’s a self-portrait… He’s posed like a self-portrait would be: I mean, he’s looking at us, but his body is turned.”
“If it was a portrait of someone other than him, it would probably be from the front,” he added.
If so, it would be one of the earliest recorded depictions of the painter, who was in his mid-20s when he finished the still life. Cézanne is known to have made more than two dozen self-portraits, although almost all of them were completed after the 1860s and were mostly executed in pencil.
“We are starting the process of finding out as much as we can about the portrait,” Peter Jonathan Bell, the museum’s 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 further image and technical analysis to help us understand what the portrait would look like and how it was produced.”
“Together, this information may contribute to our understanding of a formative moment early in the career of this great artist.”
Questions without answer
Part of the Cincinnati Museum of Art collection since 1955, “Still Life with Bread and Eggs” was painted in a realist 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 guidance of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, before spearheading the more structured style of the Post-Impressionist movement.
By the mid-1860s Cézanne was developing a new rough painting technique, often using a palette knife to apply colour. But whether the portrait of him hidden from him was an experiment gone wrong, or if he simply repurposed an old canvas to save money, remains a matter of speculation.
Another possibility, Urry ventured, is that the painter was suddenly inspired and “needed a canvas,” a theory supported by the fact that he doesn’t seem to have removed much paint before starting work.
“It’s pretty clear he didn’t scratch it,” Urry explained.
Many other questions remain, such as what colors Cézanne used and how complete his original portrait was. Museum experts hope to analyze the painting using advanced scanning processes, such as multispectral imaging, which could reveal underlying brushwork by evaluating textures invisible to the naked eye. X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, meanwhile, could reveal which chemical elements are present, and therefore which color pigments the artist used.
“We hope to contact colleagues in the world of conservation and museography to see if we can access other equipment,” Urry explains.
For now, however, the museum is looking forward to exhibiting “Still Life with Bread and Eggs” again. Since its discovery in May, Urry has cleaned the painting and thinned the varnish on its surface. It will be back on public view, along with an image of the X-ray, starting December 20.
Subsequent scans and analysis could mean moving the work to another institution, posing logistical problems and meaning museum visitors might miss out on seeing one of only two Cézannes in its collection. “You can’t get in the car and drive it to Chicago,” Urry explains.
“The portrait has been there since he painted it, and it’s been there since (we acquired it in) 1955,” he added, “so there’s no rush.”