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After More Than 150 Years in Storage, Multi-Year Restoration Effort Returns Life Size 'Rhinoceros' and 'Lion' to Exhibition for May 2007

September 12, 2006

LOS ANGELES—When the J. Paul Getty Museum unveils the exhibition Oudry’s Painted Menagerie on May 1, 2007, two enormous artworks, Rhinoceros and Lion, will be on display for the first time in approximately 150 years.  The works, which belong to the Staatliches Museum Schwerin in Germany, were painted in the mid-1700s by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, considered the principal animal painter during the first half of the reign of Louis XV, an era when exotic animals were considered celebrities.

Oudry’s Painted Menagerie (May 1 – September 2, 2007 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Center) will include not only the restored Rhinoceros and Lion, but 9 additional Oudry animal paintings – including an antelope, leopards, a Mufflon sheep, and several exotic fowl, and more than 20 animal drawings.

Oudry’s Rhinoceros is not just any rhinoceros.  It is a life-sized portrait of Clara, a famous touring Indian rhinoceros who inspired a dedicated following throughout Europe in the mid-1700’s.  A Dutch sea captain imported Clara from India, and orchestrated a European tour for the high-profile animal that lasted 18 years.  Oudry painted Clara in 1749 at the annual Saint-Germain fair in Paris.

An engaging section of the Getty’s exhibition, entitled “Rhino-mania,” will showcase paintings, a beaded textile, Meissen porcelain, medals, prints, drawings and objects inspired by the celebrity rhino Clara. 

Although Oudry’s painting of Clara was famous in her day, for the last 150 years Rhinoceros, Lion and another painting, Tiger, were housed in a basement in a German museum, their canvasses rolled and folded, showing signs of age.  All three paintings are currently in different stages of restoration at the Getty Museum, and visitors will be able to watch the final stages of Clara’s treatment in full public view in the Museum’s East Art Information Room from January 9-28, 2007.

The East Art Information Room, with its skylights, was selected for this final phase of restoration because it provides downward facing light, or what conservation professionals term “top light,” to guide the most delicate final restoration work.  Mark Leonard, head of Paintings Conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum, will complete the work himself, and visitors will be able to observe the meticulous retouching process first-hand.  During this phase, Leonard will also periodically be available to speak with visitors and answer questions.

Rhinoceros and Lion were purchased from Oudry in 1750 as part of a suite of 13 animal paintings.  The sale was made to Oudry’s principal patron at the time, Christian Ludwig II, the German Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.  After their purchase, the Duke shipped the paintings to his castle in northeast Germany – now a part of the Staatliches Museum Schwerin.  In the middle of the 19th century, the paintings were cut from their stretchers and moved to storage.

In 2002, Leonard and Scott Schaefer, curator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, were traveling through Germany to review potential conservation and restoration projects and learned of the Rhinoceros and Lion.  After a dialogue with German officials, the Getty team was invited to return on a subsequent trip to view the works, and they offered to bring the pictures to Los Angeles for study and treatment.

The Restoration Process

The restoration process offered a truly original opportunity.  Rhinoceros and Lion – unlike their Oudry brethren at the Museum Schwerin – had not received restoration for more than 150 years. 

This situation produced a dichotomy – on the one hand, there was damage attributable to the paintings’ lengthy period of storage - both pictures were covered with heavy layers of grime and discolored varnish, making them very difficult to view.  In addition, the Lion was folded on its central seam, then rolled and crushed on one side of the roll, leading to cracks and creases, and numerous missing flakes of color.  There were also structural repairs needed to mend numerous old tears and losses.  On the other hand, the parts of the paintings that remained intact were in exquisite condition – the old varnish that appeared so dark and discolored had in fact offered protection to the original painted areas, and the paintings’ physical inaccessibility had meant that no one had attempted to clean or restore them in the past. 

“Our assignment was unique,” explains Leonard.  “It is rare to receive the opportunity to work with paintings that have not undergone regular upkeep in more than a century.  But I believe that when the restoration process is complete, these two paintings will be amongst the best preserved of all remaining Oudry works.”

The Paintings Conservation team wanted to make the artworks visually compatible with Schwerin’s other Oudry works, so they followed a conservative approach, thinning the existing varnish and then adding a new layer of varnish in order to offer visual consistency with the remainder of the Museum Schwerin’s suite of Oudry paintings.  Then, conservators retouched the scattered minor damages so that they would not distract from enjoyment of the original paint.  In addition, conservator Tiarna Doherty painstakingly re-wove shredded bits of canvas, using tweezers and a magnifying glass, a process that took 18 months.

The multi-year restoration process featured a variety of compelling discoveries, collaborations, use of unique Getty capabilities, and painstaking procedures. One critical discovery was that the restoration would be guided in part by Oudry himself.  Because of Oudry’s stature as a professor at the Royal Academy under King Louis XV, he published detailed and precise papers describing his painting technique – which informed the Getty Museum’s restoration, along with historical photos of the artworks.

“We know so much about Oudry and the techniques he used. It is rare even with contemporary artists to possess such accurate and detailed accounts of the painting process,” says Leonard.

The understanding gleaned from Oudry’s own notes and papers was supplemented by the Museum’s collaboration with the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI).  This partnership included the GCI’s microscopic analysis of the pigments and binding media used in Oudry’s paintings, as well as the application techniques.

Another critical component of the restoration would be the utilization of special Museum capabilities.  For example, it was critical to be able to display and easily maneuver Rhinoceros – a painting that measures 10 feet by 15 feet in size.  Master craftsmen in the Museum’s workshops designed and created a series of temporary stretchers to allow for easy  access to the front and back of the canvas for restoration.  In addition, they created a giant metal easel to allow a single technician to turn the painting.

The conservation of Rhinoceros, Lion, and Tiger is being made possible by the support of the Getty Museum’s Paintings Conservation Council.  Additional support has been provided by The Friends of Heritage Preservation.

Noted film director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A., Rules of Engagement ) was so captivated by the restoration of Clara that he has followed and documented the conservation project from the day the paintings first arrived at the Getty Museum.  Friedkin’s final documentary of the project will be shown at the Getty in conjunction with the exhibition.

Following its display at the Getty Center, Oudry’s Painted Menagerie will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for display from October 2007 through early January 2008.  Subsequently, all of the paintings will return to public view in Schwerin, where they will be presented alongside the remainder of the Oudry collection at the museum for the first time.

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Miranda Carroll
Getty Communications Dept.

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