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A rhino's restoration

The Getty publicly nurses back to health a 1749 painting of a superstar named Clara.

January 05, 2007|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

ITS proper title is "Rhinoceros" -- but most people end up referring affectionately to both the painting and its subject as "Clara."

Like the Mona Lisa or the Venus de Milo, there's something about French painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry's life-size, 1749 portrait of Clara -- an Indian white rhino imported to Europe by a Dutch sea captain who turned her into an 18th century superstar by touring her throughout the continent -- that invites viewers to be on a first-name basis with art.

"The emotions that she provokes are unbelievable; people literally fall in love with her," says Mary Morton, associate curator of paintings for the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Mark Leonard, the museum's head of paintings conservation, says: "She created a sensation everywhere she went. At that time, seeing a rhinoceros was as if today we brought back a creature from Mars."

Now, for first time in more than 150 years, Clara is on tour again -- this time the painting, not the rhinoceros. After languishing in the basement of a German museum for many decades, the Getty Museum is restoring the 10-foot-high, 15-foot-long oil-on-canvas portrait for public view.

Also a first for the Getty: Museum-goers will be able to watch the restoration process in action. From Jan. 9 through 28, Leonard will complete the final stages of the multiyear effort in a gallery open to the public. Leonard will also be available periodically to answer visitors' questions.

The public restoration precedes the Getty's May 1 through Sept. 2 exhibition "Oudry's Painted Menagerie," which will include "Rhinoceros" and "Lion" (also out of circulation for 150 years and being restored by the Getty), nine other Oudry animal paintings, among them an antelope, leopards and exotic fowl, as well as more than 20 animal drawings.

The Getty is also restoring Oudry's "Tiger" painting, which will not be completed in time for the show.

Morton, the exhibition curator, says images of animals were central to the court of King Louis XV, in part because of the ruler's obsession with hunting, game and dogs. Oudry was able to take animal painting to a higher level, "like state portraits by Largelliere or Rigaud," she says, noting that Oudry did in fact study under French historical and portrait artist Nicolas de Largelliere. "State portraits are power propaganda; you put up a portrait of the king and he is just supposed to exude power, inspire obedience and awe. You get that from these animals."

The exhibition will include a section titled "Rhino-mania," exhibiting some of the many other paintings, drawings, textiles and other objects inspired by Clara during her European tour. Also expect the Getty to seek to inspire a little contemporary rhino-mania with gift-shop items and possible cross-promotional tie-ins with the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History and the Los Angeles Zoo, home of Rhonda, another Indian white rhino.

"The marketing folks are going nuts with this, with ideas like having a bus with Clara on one side and Rhonda on the other," Morton says.

Clara also has a modern-day fan in film director William Friedkin, who has followed the restoration process from the day the painting arrived at the Getty. His documentary will be shown in conjunction with the exhibition. But for now, in the East Art Information Room, one of the Getty's smaller galleries, Clara stands alone, keeping one eye bright on her audience. "She looks right at you," Leonard says.

Since 2002, Leonard and other Getty conservators have been at work on Clara as well as two other Oudry paintings in a conservation studio, cleaning off discolored varnish, repairing multiple tears in the canvas and restoring areas of loss. Scott Schaefer, the Getty Museum's curator of paintings, says that luckily none of the paintings had major damage to the animals' faces, which would have required major guesswork on the part of restorers as to the artists' original intent.

After the Getty, "Oudry's Painted Menagerie" will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and then return to view at their home, the Staatliches Museum Schwerin, in Germany.

To avoid new damage, Schaefer says Clara and the other paintings will not be rolled for transport but will travel stretched to full size on a wooden frame that, when tilted, can fit into the cargo area of a 747. "Then we had to worry about whether, if it were stretched, it would fit into the building," he says. "We went to measure ourselves, and it fits through the window" of the museum's second location, Ludwigslust, a former hunting lodge just outside Schwerin.

Leonard says that bringing the work to its original state requires the natural "top light" provided by the gallery rather than the light that comes through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the conservation area, windows that afford spectacular city views but also cause glare on the painting's surface.

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