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X-raying Cézanne: Next Steps

by Franck M. Mercurio, Publications Editor


CAM collection , Paul Cezanne , CAMConservation

The story is now well known. While examining Paul Cézanne’s Still Life with Bread and Eggs for possible treatment and cleaning, Chief Conservator Serena Urry, noticed some odd cracks on the painting’s surface, revealing glimpses of a lighter-toned pigment beneath.

“I thought there might be something underneath the paint that was worth exploring,” recalled Urry.

To learn exactly what, Urry hired a mobile medical X-ray company to image the painting. What the digital X-ray images revealed made international news. Urry had discovered a well-defined portrait hiding beneath the still life—perhaps the 26-year-old Cézanne’s most ambitious portrait to that date. The X-rays uncovered those areas where the young artist employed lead-based pigments–lead white, lead-tin yellow, and other radio-opaque materials—revealing the ghostly white figure. But what other colors did the artist use to create the original composition?

“This is what we hope to find out,” says Urry. “The next step is to employ more sophisticated scanning technology, including X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry to create an elemental map of the painting.”

XRF spectrometers can detect a range of chemical elements found in various paints—such as cadmium, iron, lead, mercury, zinc, and tin—giving conservators and curators a better idea of what colors Cézanne might have employed in creating the portrait.

“XRF spectrometry doesn’t identify the precise pigments,” explains Urry, “but it allows us to create a map of elements to get closer to an answer.”

So, who is the person portrayed in Cézanne’s painting? What can the scanning technology reveal about their identity?

“Within the confines of current and near-future technology, there will always be an element of interpretation when it comes to the identity of the sitter,” explains Peter Jonathan Bell, Curator of European Paintings, Sculpture and Drawings. “If through a spectrometry and tomography we can glean more information about the physical construction of the underlying painting, Cézanne experts can then weigh in on implications of the young artist’s style and make convincing comparisons with surviving paintings from that period to point to a possible sitter.”

See the painting in Gallery 227 during your next visit!

Images 1 & 2: Digital x-ray of mosaic of Still Life with Bread and Eggs, May 24, 2022

Image 3: Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906), Still Life with Bread and Eggs, 1865, oil on canvas, Gift of Mary E. Johnston, 1955.73