Two Cézanne sketches found by conservators at the Barnes Foundation earlier this year went on view at the collection in Philadelphia today. The unfinished works were discovered on the backs of two of Cézanne’s landscapes, “The Chaine de L’Etoile Mountains” (1885–86) and “Trees” (1900), during a routine conservation treatment in 2014. The Barnes Foundation will display the watercolors in double-sided frames, allowing viewers to compare Cézanne’s finished, polished products with his incomplete works-in-progress.
The conservation session that yielded the discovery was headed by Barbara Buckley, senior director of conservation and chief conservator of paintings at the Barnes, with help from conservators from the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts. Buckley thinks that these sketches — which haven’t been seen since the early 20th century, at least — and their display will afford us new insight into Cézanne’s creative process: “The finished product of an artist is the result of a physical and intellectual process. By understanding the physical aspects of that artistic process and the materials that artists use, we gain a deeper understanding of their work,” she told Hyperallergic.
Such an understanding can have material implications for conservators. “Having knowledge of the materials and methods of an artist is vital to our preservation and conservation of art work,” Buckley said.
Unfinished works can also be conceptually or psychologically illuminating. In this case, we catch a glimpse of Cézanne’s uncertainty. The sketches, which depict trees and houses that the artist encountered on his walks in the French countryside, represent initial attempts to distill the imagery of his daily life into artworks. They were, as Buckley explains, a means “visual note taking” for the artist.
They may also help the museum unravel further historical mysteries. They contain not only sketches but also numbers that Buckley speculates are dealer’s inventory numbers, which may help art historians learn more about the “provenance and exhibition history of these works by Cézanne.”
Cézanne Uncovered: Two Sketches Revealed Through Conservation continues at the Barnes Foundation (2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia) through May 18.