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The Jewel in the Crown

The Getty's Search for the Finest Illuminated Manuscripts Turns Up L.A.'s Own Monet in the Attic

June 15, 2003|Ann Herold

As curator of the Getty Center's manuscript collection, Thomas Kren had already spent years jetting around the world perusing hundreds of works--art so precious that insuring and shipping it proved beyond the resources of the prestigious British Library, which had first courted the idea of a definitive exhibit on Flemish Renaissance illuminated manuscripts. And still that frisson moment came in Kren's own backyard, a tiny treasure, really, all of 6 by 4 1/2 inches.

There, inside the enclosed carrel of the Huntington Library's reading room, not much larger than a phone booth, Kren and Scot McKendrick, curator of manuscripts at the British Library, were going over the San Marino institution's considerable possessions for the show, now to be held at the richer Getty. The two experts were handed the Book of Hours of Margaretha van Burgen, not a remarkable collection of illuminations, as these things go. Except for that astounding "Virgin and Child." Its exquisite beauty and technique stopped Kren cold. He was an expert on this period, so why didn't he already know this piece? The high forehead and cheekbones, beautiful lips and long, flowing hair were exactly, he thought, like the work of Gerard David, the accomplished Flemish painter who had successfully crossed over into illumination.

That a David would appear among the works of lesser illuminators was not completely out of character. The ambitious David had been known to save himself for the more prestigious projects: the books of prayers or lives of the saints commissioned by wealthy patrons to be decorated with tiny yet vibrant scenes and gilt scrollwork. In a book such as Margaretha van Burgen's, he would have expended himself on only one piece, say the most important scene in the book. And that certainly seemed to be the case here.

But there was one other person who could help dispel the clouds of doubt, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Maryan Ainsworth, curator of European paintings and a David expert. Within days, Ainsworth too entered that enclosed carrel. Kren wanted to show her the rest of the book, but Ainsworth was eager to see the David. She gasped as the page appeared.

''A lot of attribution is gut reaction,'' she says, and her instincts told her this was the real thing. Now to prove it. ''We were looking at it under high magnification . . . . [it] allowed me to see the particular handling and execution of brushwork. The manner in which he applied strokes to do the modeling of face and hands, there's a particular way that David does it that no one else does.''

In illuminated manuscripts, God is in the details, and God was smiling here.

Now an unknown treasure unearthed a few freeway miles away will be displayed for all to see starting this Tuesday, when ''Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe'' opens at the Getty Center. And along with the Huntington "Virgin and Child" will be David illuminations from six other manuscripts, a heady number considering only 10 manuscripts containing his work exist today.

David's large presence at the show has a certain symmetry. The ambitious artist marketed himself well--that altarpiece for the convent in Bruges was conveniently seen by foreign merchants flooding the city. And when Antwerp challenged Bruges as a commercial center, David opened a second workshop there. A consummate politican, David won major art commissions from Bruges' town fathers even as they were fighting off the advances of Maxilimilian of Burgundy, then took on decorating the shutters in Maximilian's jail cell. Smart, considering Maximilian couldn't be counted out in the tug of war for control of Flanders.

Here was a painter who thought to sketch faces on the street for use in his painting, bringing a touching humanity to his work, who was then sued in a financial dispute. It had long been the practice of illuminators to create ''patterns,'' say of a particularly effective bit of scrollwork, for use again and again. When one gifted apprentice left David's workshop before serving his required time, the painter confiscated his patterns. In the ensuing court case, David lost, and served a brief jail term.

When the Flemish developed a taste for things Italian, David obliged with the appropriate chiarascuro treatments and subject matter. But always, says Ainsworth, David made sure to take jobs that ensured his status, so that he was only doing the most important illumination in an already important book. Even his alliances were smart: believed to be among his close friends was Simon Bening, head of one of the most successful illumination workshops in art history.

And while he could never have anticipated his fame--or could he?--David in some sense earned it. He had prodigious talent, says Ainsworth. Even as he thought big, it seems, David could also think very small.

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''Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe'' will feature the works of David, Simon Bening, Simon Marmion and other master illuminators. Scores of works from the period between 1470 and 1560 have been assembled from 49 collections covering more than 14 countries. Collections represented at the exhibit include those of the Getty, the British Museum and British Library, the Louvre and Bibliotheque Nationale de France, and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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