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'Venus' Another Sparkler for Getty Museum : Art: The Titian masterpiece, which sold for $13.47 million at auction last fall, will go on view after cleaning and restoration.

June 19, 1992|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

The J. Paul Getty Museum has added another star picture to its increasingly high-profile collection. The new acquisition is "Venus and Adonis," a passionate love scene painted around 1555-1560 by Venetian Renaissance master Tiziano Vecellio, known as Titian. The painting will go on view in about a year after restoration and cleaning.

"We're elated to have a picture of such beauty and emotional power," said museum director John Walsh, in a statement issued by the Getty. "It becomes one of the few major works by Titian in this country, and along with Pontormo's 'Portrait of Cosimo I de' Medici' and Mantegna's 'Adoration of the Magi,' it's one of the greatest purchases we have made for the Getty Museum."

George Goldner, the Getty's curator of paintings and drawings, rates the painting even higher. "It's the best Old Master picture I've bought for the museum," he said in a telephone interview. "The Titian will have a tremendous impact on the museum."

As a matter of policy the museum does not reveal purchase prices of works in the collection, but sources close to the sale peg the sum at about $20 million to $25 million.

The Titian made international news last December, when it was sold at Christie's London for $13.47 million, a record price for the artist and the highest sum paid for any work of art during the fall auction season. (The previous Titian record was $4 million, paid in 1971 for "The Death of Actaeon.")

The work was sold by the second Earl of Normanton, whose family had bought the painting in 1844. The buyer was the London gallery Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox in partnership with Herman Shickman, a dealer based in London and New York. From the moment of the sale, art world insiders speculated that the picture would eventually go to the Getty, but the dealers told the press that they had several clients in mind.

Goldner said the museum did not pursue the painting at auction because of "budgetary issues" and insufficient time to study the work. But the Getty inquired about the painting soon after the sale and promptly began preparations to win approval of an export license from the British government. The license was granted in mid-April, Goldner said. The painting arrived at the museum about three weeks ago, and the board of trustees officially approved the purchase last Friday.

Goldner has made no secret of his hope that the Getty would get the Titian. "We tend to have long lists of artists we call great, but Titian is one of the five or six truly supreme painters, and this is one of his major works," he said. Calling the acquisition something of "a miracle," Goldner noted the extreme rarity in the marketplace of prime Old Master paintings.

The best that Old Master collectors can hope to find are secondary works by major figures or fine pieces by lesser artists, Goldner said. The Titian is a rare exception to that rule, he said. "It is a characteristic, central work that is brilliantly painted. The theme is central to Titian's work and it is beautifully evoked."

The 63-by-77 3/8-inch painting, derived from Ovid's "Metamorphoses," depicts the nude goddess of love throwing her arms around Adonis in an attempt to restrain him from going off to a hunt. In "Metamorphoses," Venus warns the handsome young man, "Be brave toward timid creatures, but courage against the courageous is not safe," and implores him to join her in the shade of a poplar tree. Adonis declines, leaves for the hunt and is killed by a wild boar.

Titian (circa 1480-1576), a student of Giorgione, produced major religious and mythological works throughout his career. He painted "Venus and Adonis" at the height of his power, after having won commissions from such prominent patrons as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Pope Paul II.

The Getty's "Venus and Adonis" is based on an earlier painting of the same theme in the collection of the Prado Museum in Madrid. While compositions of the two works are nearly identical, the figures in the Prado's version are more classically modeled and appear more solid. Goldner characterized the Getty's painting as a more intimate, expressionistic, passionate interpretation of the theme, in keeping with the artist's maturity.

Queen Christina of Sweden owned the painting during the 17th Century, after which it belonged to several private collections. Although the painting has apparently suffered no serious damage, it has not been cleaned for decades and is reportedly extremely dirty. Restoration will be done by Getty conservators.

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