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PHILADELPHIA — In 1921, the wily art collector Albert C. Barnes wrote to Paris to his friend and fellow collector Leo Stein, who was in dire need of money and had deputized Barnes to sell some of his holdings in the United States. They included five watercolor landscapes by Paul Cézanne, but Barnes reported that he had failed to find “anybody who seems to think they are sufficiently important to want to own them.”
It was pure mercantile flimflam. Barnes turned around and bought the watercolors for himself, at $100 each, installing them permanently in his personal museum near here. Now it turns out that Barnes got a better deal than even he had thought: A conservation treatment of the watercolors has revealed two previously unknown Cézanne works — a graphite drawing and a watercolor with graphite — on the verso (the reverse side) of two of the watercolors.
Hidden beneath brown paper backing, the newly discovered pieces are unfinished, but they have sent tremors through the world of Cézanne scholarship, where additions to his body of work are exceedingly rare and where even the resurfacing of long-unseen pieces can be huge news. A watercolor study for Cézanne’s coveted “The Card Players” paintings, discovered in Dallas in 2012 after a six-decade absence from public view,brought $19 million at auction that year, an indication of the work’s importance but also of Cézanne’s place among the most sought-after artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Many people come to me and say, ‘I have found a Cézanne!,’ and I’ve never, never, never found one that was actually by Cézanne,” said Denis Coutagne, president of the Paul Cézanne Society in Provence, who has been conducting research for the Barnes for several months to determine where Cézanne was standing in the landscape of Aix-en-Provence when he drew one of the newly discovered works.
“It was a very fortunate day in Philadelphia when they found these,” Mr. Coutagne said in a telephone interview Friday from Aix-en-Provence, where Cézanne (1839-1906) was born and spent most of his painting career.
There is nothing in Barnes’s correspondence to indicate that he was aware of the existence of the two works. The Barnes, which relocated in 2012from its original home in Merion, a Philadelphia suburb, to a new building in Philadelphia and has begun a yearslong conservation program for many of its works, knew that the acidic backing of the five Cézanne watercolors needed to be removed to prevent damage. And in January 2014, when Gwenanne Edwards, a paper expert at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia, was beginning that long removal process, millimeter by millimeter, with a tool called a microspatula, she suddenly came to an area where she found a patch of blue-green color and then graphite lines.
Ms. Edwards, looking at the uncovered works again last week on a table at the Barnes Foundation’s conservation lab, added, “It was quite thrilling.”
Barbara Buckley, the senior director of conservation at the Barnes, described the reaction at the foundation a bit more emphatically: “There were screams of delight.”
One of the works, found on the back of a watercolor of mountains dated to 1885-86, is a view of what seems to be a path leading through trees, with what might be a well or cistern in the distance. At some point in the work’s history, someone — probably not Cézanne — wrote an “X” and the word “non” on the lower right-hand corner of the work, with what might be a question mark following it, indicating that it was rejected or questioned as a completed or salable piece.
The second discovered work, a graphite drawing with no color, found on the back of a watercolor of trees dated to 1900 or earlier, shows a view of the Massif de l’Etoile mountain range, looking toward a prominent button-shaped limestone peak known as the Pilon du Roi, with a large manor house in the foreground and a farmhouse in the distance. From where Cézanne was most likely standing when he drew it, the peak of his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire, whose craggy mass he returned to in paint again and again, would have been visible to his left.
“These are a perfect example of how much we still don’t know about this collection,” said Martha Lucy, a consulting curator at the Barnes and an expert on its Renoir and Cézanne holdings. “To add new work to Cézanne’s oeuvre is incredible.”
While Barnes’s chief passion was Renoir — he amassed 181 works by him during his lifetime — he also fell in love with the work of Cézanne in the early years of the 20th century. In 1914, he wrote to Stein that he was in Cézanne’s “good strong grip,” enthralled by his “crudity, his baldness of statements, his apparent lack of skill in the handicraft of painting, and the absolute sincerity of the man.” Among artists, Cézanne’s watercolors were particularly prized. Renoir and Degas were reported to have drawn lots to see which one would get to own a Cézanne watercolor still life in 1895, at the time of a Paris exhibition organized by the dealer Ambroise Vollard, which vaulted Cézanne to public recognition.
While the Barnes remains bound by its founder’s strict charter and bylaws, which prohibit moving or rearranging the works on the walls, the foundation plans to show the uncovered works briefly in double-sided frames, from April 10 to May 18, along with video of some of the conservation work. Barnes officials said they recently presented the plan to the office of the Pennsylvania attorney general, which oversees the governance of nonprofit institutions, and received its blessing to keep the watercolors temporarily away from their usual spots on the wall.
Barnes conceived of his foundation more as an educational institution than as a museum, sometimes fiercely repelling those seeking a casual visit. (His one-word response on T. S. Eliot’s application: “Nuts.”) Ms. Lucy said she believed one of the chief benefits of the discovery would be educational, 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 added. “You can see how they’re made, and for anyone who cares about Cézanne, that’s an amazing thing to get to see.”