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After More Than 150 Years in Storage, Multi-Year Restoration Effort Returns Life-Size Rhinoceros and Lion to Original Splendor

Exhibition opens May 2007

February 14, 2007

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 greatest animal painter during the first half of the reign of Louis XV.

Oudry’s Painted Menagerie (May 1– September 2, 2007 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Center) will mark the culmination of an important international collaboration of conservators, curators, and art historians. The exhibition will showcase the restored Rhinoceros and Lion, and nine additional Oudry  paintings – including an antelope, leopards, a Mufflon sheep, several exotic fowl, and more than 20 animal drawings.  Most of these portraits celebrate star specimens of the French king’s menagerie at Versailles.

A French painter and professor at the Royal Academy, Oudry (1686-1755) was among the foremost court painters of his day in France and Germany. Oudry’s highly finished, naturalistic animals have been called elegant, dignified, and noble.

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.  Curious people came in droves to see the wondrous rhinoceros which German viewers, charmed by her docile nature, named Miss Clara.

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

Oudry sold Rhinoceros and Lion in 1750 as part of a suite of 13 animal paintings.  The buyer was 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 removed from their stretchers and placed in storage.

In 2002, Mark Leonard, head of paintings conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Scott Schaefer, curator of paintings at the Getty Museum, were traveling through Germany to review potential conservation and restoration projects and learned of the Rhinoceros and Lion.  The Getty team viewed the paintings and offered to bring them to Los Angeles for study and treatment.

The Restoration Process

The restoration process offered a truly original opportunity, as neither Rhinoceros nor Lion had been touched for more than 150 years. 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, leading to cracks, creases, and numerous missing flakes of color.  There were also structural repairs needed to mend numerous old tears and losses.  However, 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 made any potentially misguided attempts 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 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.  In addition, Getty 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 led to some compelling discoveries. Because of Oudry’s stature as a professor at the Royal Academy, he had 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.

The Getty’s unique capabilities came into play in other aspects of the restoration as well.  For example, in order to display and easily maneuver the life-size Rhinoceros, 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.

This exhibition has been organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in association with the Staatliches Museum Schwerin and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The conservation of Rhinoceros, Lion, and a third painting, Tiger, has been made possible by the support of the Paintings Conservation Council of the J. Paul Getty Museum, a group of supporters who underwrite selected conservation partnerships.  Additional support has been provided by The Friends of Heritage Preservation.  The exhibition Oudry’s Painted Menagerie is being sponsored at the Getty by Wachovia Bank.

Oudry’s Painted Menagerie will be on view at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, October 7, 2007 to January 6, 2008, and the Staatliches Museum Schwerin, Dresden, April 4 through July 6, 2008.

Clara: The Movie

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 entire conservation project from the day the painting first arrived at the Getty Museum.  Portions of Friedkin’s documentary will be shown in conjunction with the exhibition.

Related Exhibition:

Medieval Beasts
May 1-July 29, 2007

North Pavilion, Plaza Level, J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center

Related Publication:

Oudry’s Painted Menagerie: Portraits of Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Europe
This exhibition catalog is the first volume to focus on the series of life-size animal portraits painted by Oudry. The book’s insightful essays situate this suite of paintings within the context of Oudry's career; discuss Oudry's remarkable drawings of animals; and present a fascinating history of menageries and of the phenomenon that occurred when the real rhinoceros, Clara, traveled through Europe and caused a public sensation.  (Getty Trust Publications, $39.95)

Edited by Mary Morton, associate curator of paintings, the J. Paul Getty Museum
With contributions by Colin Bailey, Marina Belozerskaya, Charissa Bremer-David, Christoph Frank, Christine Giviskos and Mark Leonard.

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Beth Laski
Getty Communications

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