When people find out I work at the Barnes, they often remark how fortunate I am to work in an environment with such beautiful art. It’s true, it’s a privilege to have frequent access to the collection, though most Barnes employees don’t spend their time at work in front of the art.
Our team of conservators is the main exception. To them falls the responsibility of caring for the collection; as such, they spend a great deal of their day working with pieces from the collection. From time to time they invite the rest of the staff down to the conservation lab to see what’s being worked on.
Right now, the conservation team is examining a number of works by Cézanne, and last Tuesday (since we’re closed to the public on Tuesdays) they hosted some of the staff for an up-close look at the paintings.
As someone who is very familiar with the collection and the placement of the pictures in their rooms, it’s always a bit of a shock for me to see paintings off the wall and isolated from their usual ensembles, in a lab with different lighting.
One of the paintings in the lab was Madame Cézanne with Green Hat (BF141) from Room 1. In some ways it was like seeing it again for the first time. I became absorbed looking at Madame Cézanne’s head and considering the relationship between her head and her hat. Noticing that her hair and forehead seemed to be visible behind her hat, I asked Barnes painting conservator Anya Shutov if perhaps the hat had been added later in the painting process, after the head was painted. She said, “No, Cézanne began the painting with a graphite underdrawing” (a pencil sketch under the oil paint) that had been revealed by infrared digital photography. The sketch shows outlines of the chair, Madame Cézanne’s clothed body, her head, and her hat. So the hat was intentional from the start. Anya said that the hat is painted thinly to look transparent, and that the transparency is further reinforced by Cézanne placing shadows on either side of his wife’s head. She noted that hats with transparent brims were fashionable at the time, a simple explanation that I would never have thought of.
I’m drawn to Cézanne’s work, and even though, for the most part, it remains enigmatic to me, at least the mystery of Madame Cézanne’s transparent hat has been solved.
I look forward to discovering more Cézannes not normally on view at the Barnes when we open our temporary exhibition The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne on June 22.