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A Getty Chronicle: The Malibu Years

A look at the evolution of the J. Paul Getty Museum as the villa closes for a four-year renovation and cedes the spotlight to the rising Getty Center.

July 06, 1997|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

J. Paul Getty was born in Minneapolis in 1892, the only child of a wealthy attorney who entered the oil business in Oklahoma in 1903 and moved his family to Southern California in 1906. Young Getty began working in the Oklahoma oil fields during summer vacations and took his first trip to Europe after graduating from high school in 1909. As a well-to-do young man, he began collecting art during the Great Depression when bargains were plentiful. His timing was auspicious, but he never adjusted to the art market's rise. Until the end of his life, he greeted every supplicant curator's proposed purchase with the same two words: "very expensive," Wilson said.

Burton Fredericksen--a longtime curator of paintings who now heads the Getty Information Institute's Provenance Index--also has clear memories of his boss' reluctance to spend large sums of money.

"He didn't like to compete with museums," Fredericksen said, recalling meetings with Getty in the late '60s and early '70s. "His limits were unstated, but it was hard to get him to buy anything for more than $50,000." No one could have guessed that 20 years later the museum would be known for snapping up paintings by Renoir, Manet, Cezanne, Pontormo, Rembrandt, Fra Bartolommeo and Poussin at prices ranging from $17 million to $35 million.

Getty's first significant purchase was a 17th century Dutch landscape by Jan van Goyen, for which he paid $1,100 in 1931 at an auction in Berlin but sold before he established his museum.

At the time, he lacked both the means and the inclination to compete with America's biggest collectors, such as Andrew Mellon and Samuel H. Kress. But his interest in acquiring art grew into a self-confessed addiction that continued for 45 years.

Unlike many prominent collectors who concentrate on paintings, Getty was partial to decorative arts, which could be purchased for relatively small sums. Arguing that furniture should be equal in stature to painting and sculpture, he insisted that hanging a fine painting in a room with cheap furnishings was akin to wearing a 50-cent necktie with a $300 suit.

As he became better informed about the objects that attracted him, he made shrewd purchases of fine carpets and 18th century French furniture. He also cultivated his taste for antiquities, apparently inspired by a visit in 1939 to the Vatican Museum. And as his oil empire grew, so did his art holdings.

By the mid 1940s, Getty had an art collection and a house on the beach in Santa Monica, next to one of William Randolph Hearst's properties. Getty had also visited San Simeon, where Hearst had built a castle furnished with a global array of artworks, and established a zoo on its grounds. In 1946, when a property in Malibu, far more modest than San Simeon, came on the market, Getty saw his chance to emulate Hearst and grabbed it.

He acquired 64 acres known as the Canon de Sentimiento from Los Angeles attorney Clyde Parker, for $250,000, and named it Getty Ranch. After adding a second floor to the house, he spent weekends there with his fifth wife Louise and their infant son Timmy until 1951, when Getty left California for Europe, to live closer to his business interests. Although he traveled widely and probably intended to return, at least for visits, he settled in Britain and developed a fear of flying that precluded trans-Atlantic trips.

By the time he left California he had become a serious collector. Indeed he had amassed so much art that he began to donate significant pieces to museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum in Exposition Park. But Getty got a better idea from an associate who suggested establishing his own museum at the ranch. He set up a trust for "the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge," added a wing onto the house and opened the first version of the J. Paul Getty Museum in May 1954.

He didn't attend the opening, but sent his regrets from the oil fields of Kuwait: "I am sorry that I am unable to join you on this occasion. I hope this museum, modest and unpretentious as it is, will nevertheless give pleasure to the many people in and around Los Angeles who are interested in the periods of art represented here." The museum consisted of five galleries, displaying examples of French furniture, Greek and Roman sculpture, and European painting. W.R. Valentiner, the German-born former director of the Detroit Institution of Art and the Art Division of the Los Angeles County Museum, served as director for the first year or so. During the late 1950s the museum was under the curatorial leadership of art historian Paul Wescher.

Sleepy as it was, the museum attracted a coterie of graduate students from UCLA during the late 1950s and '60s. Among them was Fredericksen, who remembers the ranch house museum as an obscure rustic outpost and a quiet place to write and do research.

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