For 158 Years, a Cézanne Portrait Hid Behind a Still Life of Bread and Eggs

While examining the painting, a museum employee had a hunch—and called for an X-ray

Still Life With Bread and Eggs by Paul Cézanne
Cézanne's Still Life With Bread and Eggs, housed at the Cincinnati Art Museum Cincinnati Art Museum

The Cincinnati Art Museum has several artworks by the French Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne in its collection, including Still Life With Bread and Eggs, a dark, moody painting depicting bread, a few eggs and red onions, and a glass.

Now, it can count one more Cézanne in its collection—sort of. The museum has discovered that beneath Still Life With Bread and Eggs, which dates back to 1865, lies another work, likely a self-portrait by the artist. 

The discovery began with Serena Urry, the museum’s chief conservator, who was conducting a routine inspection of the cherished Cézanne. The work had small cracks, which is normal for a painting that is 158 years old. But she noticed that the cracks were clustered in two areas, rather than spread evenly across the canvas. They also revealed white paint, which contrasted the palette of the still life, made during the painter’s so-called “dark” period.

“I had a hunch,” Urry recalls in a statement from the museum. So she decided to have the painting X-rayed.

Digital x-ray mosaic of Still Life with Bread and Eggs
Digital X-ray mosaic of Cézanne's Still Life With Bread and Eggs Cincinnati Art Museum

Her hunch was right: The scans revealed a well-defined portrait lying beneath the 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,” she tells CNN’s Oscar Holland. “If it were a portrait of someone other than himself, it would probably be full frontal.”

If the team’s hypothesis is correct, the work would be one of the earliest depictions of Cézanne, who was in his 20s in 1865, the year the still life was completed. At the time, the painter was under the influence of Spanish Baroque style and Gustave Courbet’s realism. He would go on to develop a brighter, more modern style later.

The portrait is a “huge discovery,” says Peter Jonathan Bell, the museum’s curator of European paintings, sculpture and drawings, in the statement.

“Serena had an excellent hunch,” Bell adds. “We are lucky it came into the lab when it did, because intuition like that can only come from extensive experience with historical paintings and deep understanding of the working methods of 19th-century artists, both of which she has in spades.”

Now, the museum is focusing on learning more about the hidden artwork.

“We are at the outset of the process of discovering as much as we can about the portrait,” Bell tells CNN. “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.”

In recent years, these kinds of discoveries—works that famous artists painted over—have become much more common. Researchers have revealed previously unknown pieces by artists ranging from Vincent van Gogh to Pablo Picasso to Helen Saunders.

In this case, the Cincinnati Art Museum is hoping to analyze the painting using other advanced technologies, such as multispectral imaging. But first, Still Life With Bread and Eggs will return this week to public view, alongside an image of the painting’s X-ray.

“The portrait has been there since he painted it, and it’s been [at the Cincinnati Art Museum] since 1955,” Urry tells CNN. “So there’s no rush.”

Editor’s Note, December 19, 2022: The word “self-portrait” in the headline has been changed to “portrait.” While experts hypothesize the artwork is a self-portrait, more research is needed to confirm that fact.