Unveiling A Brighter Cezanne

May 19, 2002|By Story by Linell Smith | Story by Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

It is a timeless Cezanne landscape: mountain shouldering into sky, rocks compressed into plain, the baked sensation of late summer. Although the French artist painted Mont Sainte-Victoire dozens of times, this singular perspective from Bibemus quarry would be declared one of his masterpieces. Millions of people would admire it, wondering what the 58-year-old French artist had in mind while he was painting.

When Mary Sebera gazed at it last January, however, she was thinking about the painting's surface. Senior conservator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Sebera pondered its physical condition, looking for minute nicks in canvas, varnished paint discolored by time.

Her job was to clean the masterpiece for its appearance in the BMA exhibition opening Wednesday, Cezanne and the Transformed Landscape. It would be the first time it had been treated in 52 years, years when it had appeared in exhibitions in the United States, Europe and Japan.

What would she discover in the process?

The well-traveled painting had a well-documented history. Cezanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen From Bibemus Quarry in 1897. Baltimore collector Claribel Cone purchased it from a French dealer in 1925 for $18,860--- more than she or her sister Etta paid for any other work in their collection of modern art. The painting came to the BMA in 1950 after Etta's death.

That was the last time it was cleaned. Over time, the surface had yellowed from the aging varnish. It had gained a golden glow that many -- even Sebera -- found pleasing. But it was not what Cezanne intended.

It needed a cleaning

Sebera first encountered the painting 16 years ago. How much more beautiful it would be, she thought, if the discolored varnish were removed. Back then she was new on staff, an associate conservator, and there were more than enough other projects -- six centuries' worth of paintings -- to occupy her. As the museum's curators decided which paintings needed work, she plunged into the craft that she had learned in graduate school for art conservation.

But she never forgot the Cezanne. One of the most popular works in the Cone Collection, the painting was often requested by other museums. Sebera often accompanied it when it traveled, making sure it settled safely into its temporary homes. She also became quite attached to it.

Ten years ago, she tested a tiny patch on the side of the painting to determine what she could about the color of the varnish. When it was last treated, conservators had relied upon natural resin varnishes, solutions that yellowed an artist's palette more than today's synthetics. When her self-rolled cotton swab, dipped in a mild organic solvent, showed a yellowish-brown solution, it further whetted her curiosity.

What would an overall cleaning do?

In the mid-1990s, the painting was a star in a landmark Cezanne show in Philadelphia. Then it left for nearly two years as part of a traveling exhibition, returning home this past January.

Sebera's opportunity had finally arrived: The BMA designed a show especially for this painting and three other Cezanne landscapes from New York's Museum of Modern Art. Cezanne and the Transformed Landscape would show the development and influence of Cezanne's revolutionary techniques with works by other master artists in the BMA collection. The occasion cried out for a freshly cleaned painting, the curators decided.

Restoring Cezanne's colors

So in February, Sebera fastened the 25-inch by 31-inch painting securely to an easel in the conservation studio, a large airy room filled with northern light. She lightly touched parts of the surface. Conservators rely upon their eyes -- most can detect minuscule variations in color -- but also upon their sense of touch. Sometimes Sebera could spend a full day cleaning a painting, thoroughly engaged in the "slushiness" of its surface. The feeling of the swab told her how fast she should move, its slipperiness indicating whether the cotton had absorbed all it should. After treating scores of paintings, she had developed a surgeon's intuition about her work.

There was much to do, however, before placing the first swab to the surface of Mont Sainte-Victoire. The process required a thorough examination and report, X-rays to reveal potential weaknesses, earlier damage or repair work, and documentary photographs.

Sebera also consulted with colleagues around the country who had worked on other Cezannes: What could she expect?

Their news was reassuring. Cezanne was not only a great artist, but also a great technician. He didn't scrimp on materials; he was the sort of artist who made conservators' jobs easier.

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