It was a discovery that stunned the art world.
Last week, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia announced that two unfinished sketches by French artist Paul Cézanne were found, hidden, on the backs of two watercolor paintings by the artist.
Discovered during a conservation treatment of the paintings, the sketches were concealed behind a brown paper backing and likely haven’t been seen in more than a century. The newly discovered sketches – one of a path leading through trees and one of a mountain range – will be on display at the Barnes from April 10 through May 18.
Martha Lucy, PhD, an assistant professor of art history and museum leadership in Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, is a consulting curator at the Barnes and an expert on its Renoir and Cézanne holdings.
Lucy learned about the sketches a few months ago from Barbara Buckley, the Barnes’s senior conservator of paintings.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Barnes lately because I’m curating an exhibition there,” said Lucy. “During one of my visits, Barbara told me she had some exciting news and took me into the conservation lab to show me the drawings. The sketches are on the backs of two watercolors that have been hanging framed in the galleries since 1921, when Albert Barnes bought them.”
“No one ever knew they were there—maybe not even Barnes himself,” Lucy said. “It was thrilling.”
According to Lucy, a discovery of this kind is extremely rare and significant, providing a glimpse behind Cézanne’s artistic process and highlighting the importance of conservation efforts and dedicated collection stewardship.
“It is exciting news for the world of Cézanne scholarship: you think you know the totality of an artist’s oeuvre, and then you realize it is still incomplete and probably always will be,” said Lucy.
Although highly unusual, there have been similar instances that also rocked the art world, according to Lucy.
“Something like this happened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston several years ago,” she said. “Conservators examining one of the museum’s Van Gogh paintings found (via x-ray) a second, unknown painting underneath the top layer. Van Gogh had painted over it. It was big news.”
The discovery is particularly exciting for the Barnes, known for its impressionist and early modern collection, including nearly 70 works by Cézanne.
“These sketches shed light on the watercolors on the other side—perhaps Cézanne made the drawings while on the same jaunt into the countryside,” said Lucy. “It also signals a new era for research at the Barnes. Now that they have moved into the new building, which has a beautiful state-of-the-art conservation facility, conservators can do all sorts of research into works of art that have been hanging untouched and unstudied for decades.”
“It makes you wonder what other discoveries are waiting to be made,” Lucy said.
The sketches will be exhibited in one of the Barnes classrooms in a double-sided frame, so that both the backs and fronts of the sheets are visible. After that, the watercolors will go back to their usual positions on the gallery wall.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for visitors to see these hidden drawings,” said Lucy. “I am teaching modern art next quarter and would love to take my Drexel students to see them. It is so important for students to see works of art in person—to see them as tactile, physical objects.”
“In these drawings you can really see the hand of Cézanne,” Lucy said.
These drawings have important implications for art education, Lucy told The New York Times, shedding new light on how Cézanne worked, particularly how he “pried apart color and line.”
“I don’t want to say that these are spontaneous, but there’s more spontaneity,” she said. “You can see how they’re made, and for anyone who cares about Cézanne, that’s an amazing thing to get to see.”
Lucy’s upcoming exhibition at the Barnes, entitled “Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things,” will go on display from May 16 – August 3. The exhibition presents three large-scale installations by internationally renowned artists Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff and Fred Wilson. Each of these works, commissioned for the show, is a response to the unconventional way that Albert C. Barnes chose to display his collection. The exhibition also features an installation designed by Barnes—a small room in the Merion gallery building that was replaced by an elevator shaft in the 1990s. More information here.
Members of the news media who are interested in speaking with Lucy should contact Alex McKechnie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-895-2705.