The Muscarelle Museum's chief curator, John Spike, believes he has identified a painting by 19th century French artist Paul Cézanne. The work, part of the museum's "Art and Science of Connoisseurship" exhibit that runs through Aug. 13, is a practice replia by Cézanne of Jacopo "Tintoretto" Robusti's 1548 original, "The Miracle of the Slave."
"I saw it and I realized that it was a Cézanne of his earliest experimental juvenile period, the latter 1860s," said Spike, a connoisseur of Old Master paintings, in a news release. "All you need to know is his works of the 1860s."
The reproduction went unattributed upon its auction in Vienna, Austria, in 2013. Spike said that's why the Muscarelle was able to purchase the piece, but he quickly recognized its handiwork. He examines details like how the paint layers are structured and unique uses of shading and shapes to determine paintings' origins. Cézanne's replica features details like a face, hidden in the original, that bears a striking resemblance to his uncle, the subject of another painting.
Spike and museum director Aaron De Groft also implemented tests like X-rays and infrared paint testing for further examination. Kristin Wustholz, an associate professor of chemistry at the College of William and Mary, said that examination offered no reason to doubt Spike's assertion, when it often does in similar situations.
Wustholz provided further support alongside Shelley Svoboda, senior conservator of paintings at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. They used an advanced technique for identifying pigments in historic artifacts and found the painting contained mauveine, the first synthetic organic dye discovered inadvertently in 1856. Mauveine is an intense purple that was produced and popular through 1869, but the fad quickly died.
"The problem, and the reason that the mauveine craze only lasts 10 years, is that it's not colorfast," Wustholz said in a news release. "It fades with time."
In a news release, Svoboda said the presence of the mauveine compound adds weight to Spike's assertion, adding that she determined it's never been discovered in a painting before. During the period of its popularity, Cézanne would have been between 17 and 30, young and still copying other artists while finding his own style.
"You have to realize that artists develop throughout their careers," Spike said. "There's no one Cézanne; there's four Cézannes if not six. A Cézanne in the '60s is different from when he's painting in a proto-Cubist way and showing all the facets of the volumes."
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.