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A High 'Light' For The Getty

Monet purchase is a boon for the museum whose ways of acquisition are sometimes criticized.

July 09, 2001|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

"It's a masterpiece," Scott Schaefer whispered to himself last Tuesday morning, just before Claude Monet's Impressionist painting, "The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light," went on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum. The Getty had purchased the shimmering, blue-gray portrayal of Rouen's gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame and taken delivery just a few days earlier.

Schaefer, the Getty's curator of paintings and front-line shopper, knew the Monet was special when he first laid eyes on it last May at Acquavella Galleries in New York. While the 1894 picture is part of a celebrated series of the quintessential French Impressionist's work, this particular example had been tucked away in private collections since its creation. It had only been exhibited once in the last 50 years--and that was in Japan.

Still, there's nothing like having your instincts validated, especially when millions of dollars are involved. The Getty won't disclose what it pays for acquisitions, but other works from Monet's "Rouen Cathedral" series have commanded up to $24.1 million at auction. No wonder Schaefer is delighted that the painting looks every bit as good as he thought it would under perfect natural light in the museum's 19th century gallery.

It joins 535 other objects acquired during the last fiscal year. Along with the Monet, only a few were in the high six-figure to eight-figure class. They include Edgar Degas' privately acquired painting, "After the Bath," and two auction purchases, Vincent van Gogh's drawing "Arles: View from the Wheatfields" ($4.4 million), and 16th century German artist Hans Hoffmann's painting, "A Hare in the Forest" ($2.6 million).

Nearly 500 of this year's acquisitions are relatively inexpensive photographs, about half of which were donated to the museum. Best estimates of the total 2000-2001 outlay, again based mostly on comparable prices, would put the figure at about $50 million.

That's a lot of art and a lot of money, but is it enough?

The new Monet is a cause for celebration, not least because the museum is frequently criticized for failing to make the most of its opportunity to build the best possible collection. As the pillar of the J. Paul Getty Trust--which also operates a research center, conservation institute and grant program on an endowment currently valued at about $5 billion--the extraordinarily wealthy museum is subject to intense scrutiny.

"Ultimately, with the resources of the Getty, what you hope will happen is that they will acquire terribly exciting things that will establish a standard that is unquestionably world class," said Edmund P. Pillsbury, former director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.

It's a widely held hope, but opinions vary sharply as to how well the museum is fulfilling its potential.

"Every time I go there I'm impressed with the things that have been added," said Sara Campbell, director of art at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. "I think the Degas ['After the Bath'] is marvelous and I'll be very pleased to see the Monet because it is so different from what anyone else has in Los Angeles. But the acquisition that just completely swept me off my feet was the Hans Hoffmann," she said. "It's so delightful and beautifully rendered."

Other Getty visitors expect more than they get in terms of memorable artworks. "I am always underwhelmed by that collection," said a prominent artist and educator who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"I know they started collecting much later than the big East Coast museums, but I don't see why the Getty doesn't grab all the great things that come on the market," said another disappointed observer.

Getty Museum director Deborah Gribbon attributes such complaints to "a misunderstanding about what the Getty can do and what it wants to do."

Rich as it is, the museum does not have limitless wealth, she said. "We have a very young collection and we can't lose sight of the other things the Getty does, so we have to be thoughtful and selective about husbanding our resources."

The museum was founded in 1953 by oil magnate J. Paul Getty, who built large, well-regarded collections of Greek and Roman antiquities and French decorative art and acquired a modest holding of European paintings. Since 1982, when Getty's estate was settled and the Getty Trust received its fortune, the museum has amassed collections of European paintings, drawings, sculpture and illuminated manuscripts and European and American photographs.

Guiding principles for developing the collection, adopted in 1984, compose a short but ambitious "We are looking for great works by important artists that are in excellent condition and not only fit our collection, but Los Angeles in general."

DEBORAH GRIBBON

Getty Museum director

list: "Get the greatest and rarest objects," "have principles, but seize the unexpected chance," "build on strength," "fill gaps, but only with superior examples" and "collect collections."

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