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Ahmanson Funds Another LACMA Gem: 'Sir Wyndham'

December 29, 1994|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

For the 72nd time in 22 years, the Ahmanson Foundation has provided the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with funds to make a significant addition to its collection. More often than not, these gifts have been European Old Master paintings. The latest--a life-size portrait of an English gentleman on a Grand Tour of Europe, painted in 1759 by Italian artist Pompeo Batoni and purchased from a dealer at an undisclosed price--is no exception.

"The Ahmanson Foundation's devotion to the museum is overwhelming," board of trustees president William A. Mingst said in a telephone interview. "This source of support, for so many years, has added key pieces to the permanent collection . . . and greatly enhanced the museum's value as a community resource in Los Angeles."

The new addition is "Sir Wyndham Knatchbull-Wyndham," an oil-on-canvas work measuring about 7 1/2 feet by 5 1/2 feet. The portrait will go on view at the museum in the spring, after being cleaned and studied in LACMA's conservation center.

The painting portrays an ebullient young aristocrat wearing an elegant costume and a pouf of white drapery over one arm--leaving no doubt about his privileged status. Painted in Rome, in a richly appointed room with a view of an idyllic countryside, Sir Wyndham is surrounded with images that signify the sights and cultural experiences that educated Englishmen were expected to enjoy on their continental travels. He points to a view of Tivoli, a tourist destination northeast of Rome, while gazing at a bust of Minerva, the ancient Roman goddess of wisdom, technical skill and invention.

Batoni was born in Lucca in 1708, the son of a goldsmith. He moved to Rome in 1727 and established himself as a painter of historical, religious and allegorical subjects before turning to portraiture. Today, Batoni is little known outside scholarly circles, but he was one of the wealthiest and most successful painters of the 18th-Century Roman School. By 1758, he had become the premier portrait painter in Europe, whose subjects included emperors, dukes and popes.

He was also the acknowledged master of the Grand Tour genre, finding a lucrative market in a parade of English noblemen who considered foreign travel part of their classical education--as well as their birthright. Apparently they loved to have their journeys recorded in portraits, and Batoni was only too happy to accommodate them. He depicted his affluent tourist clients as energetic members of a leisure class who had the world at their command.

"Sir Wyndham Knatchbull-Wyndham" is a prime example of Batoni's full-length portraiture. According to J. Patrice Marandel, LACMA's curator of European painting and sculpture, it provides a historical and stylistic connection between two other works in the museum's collection, Italian painter Guido Reni's portrait of Cardinal Roberto Ubaldino (a 1983 gift of the Ahmanson Foundation) and a romantic image of 2nd Lt. Charles Legrand by French artist Antoine-Jean Gros.

The new acquisition brings public attention to a work that has been carefully preserved since its creation--about 235 years ago--in the subject's family home at Mersham le Hatch in Kent. The reason for selling the portrait has not been disclosed, but it is in unusually good condition because it stayed in one place with a family that prized it, according to Joseph Fronek, senior paintings conservator at LACMA.

The work's admirable state of health is also a tribute to Batoni's technical mastery, Fronek said. The pigments have retained their original colors and impasto details have remained intact. The painting probably hasn't been cleaned for 80 years, he said. Dirt and discolored varnish must be removed, he said, but little restoration is needed.

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