Paintings from the Kröller-Müller Museum—A Museum Conservation Partnership

Cornfield / Van Gogh

Cornfield and Tree in the Mountains, Vincent van Gogh, 1889
Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo


Three late 19th-century French masterpieces from the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands, will go on view at the Getty Center in October 2005. They are guests of the Museum's paintings conservation department, which donated months of time to restore them in exchange for the opportunity to share them with Getty Center visitors.

It's all part of the Getty Museum's Conservation Partnership Program, in which the Museum partners with fellow institutions around the world to bring important paintings to the Getty Center for study and restoration.

The program is the creation of the Museum's chief paintings conservator Mark Leonard. To fund expenses beyond the work in the lab, the Museum relies on members of the Paintings Conservation Council. The Council, another brainchild of Leonard, helps engage collectors and members of the art world in the international service work of the Getty.

Vincent van Gogh's Cornfield and Tree in the Mountains
This landscape by Vincent van Gogh (above right) is one of the most unusual paintings in the Kröller-Müller's collection. Van Gogh painted the scene on an unprimed cloth printed with a red herringbone design after he ran out of traditional artist's canvas. Traces of the delicate cloth fabric can be seen in many places throughout the painting (see detail, below).

Cornfield / Van Gogh
Detail of Cornfield and Tree in the Mountains by Vincent van Gogh showing the red herringbone fabric he used

Years ago, conservators glued a piece of secondary canvas to the reverse of the fragile fabric to support it. Unfortunately, the adhesive stained the original fabric. Over the years, light also faded many of the painting's brighter colors. The greyish brushstrokes dotting the field, for example, were once a vivid pink.

"Fading is a common problem with Van Gogh," explains Leonard. "Paints in tubes were a new thing at the time, and many of the early commercial paints contained synthetic pigments that faded over time."

The painting's canvas backing proved impossible to remove. But assistant conservator Tiarna Doherty was able to work with Getty Conservation Institute scientists to identify the colors Van Gogh originally used in this painting. She is now creating a study model of the landscape to give some idea of how it may have looked when it was first painted.

Cornfield and Tree in the Mountains is on view now in the West Pavilion.

Mlle Eva Callimaki Cartagi / Fantin-Latour

Portrait of Mlle Eva Callimaki Cartagi, Henri Fantin-Latour, 1881
Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo


Henri Fantin-Latour's Portrait of Mlle Eva Callimaki Cartagi
Hélène Kröller-Müller, the collector who founded the Kröller-Müller Museum, received this painting as a 25th anniversary gift from her husband. He was struck by how much the sitter resembled Hélène in her youth.

But the brooding beauty came to the Getty in a precarious state. Problems had developed as a result of the fact that the artist applied layers of varnish in between the many layers of paint used to make the portrait, and a heavy-handed restoration effort had damaged the face, transforming it into a dark, cracked expanse.

Kröller-Müller conservator Devi Ormond accompanied the painting to the Getty and devoted three months to its restoration in collaboration with Leonard's department and the curatorial staff at the Museum, as well as the scientists from the Getty Conservation Institute. "We didn't know if we'd be able to do anything with it," admits Leonard.

visiting conservator Devi Ormond
Conservator Devi Ormond uses an old photograph to restore life to the damaged portrait

But technical sleuthing and historical detective work saved the day. Ormond was also able to locate a century-old photograph of the painting that showed lost details of facial features. She then used the photograph as a source document to guide the reconstruction of much of the original detail (see photo at left).

Ormond's cleaning also heightened the brilliance of the woman's dress and the flowers at the bottom right. They show Fantin-Latour's talent for combining precise observation with beautiful subdued colors and a delicate, shimmering surface.

This painting will go on view in the West Pavilion on October 18, 2005.

The Clown / Renoir

The Clown, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1868
Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo


Pierre-Auguste Renoir's The Clown
This striking painting is believed to be a portrait of John Price, a clown who entertained 19th-century Parisian audiences by playing the violin while balancing atop an unsteady ladder or chair. A refined audience looks on from the background as the clown points with his bow, perhaps about to begin a recital.

Leonard was entranced by this painting when he and Getty Museum paintings curator Scott Schaefer visited the Kröller-Müller Museum to select candidates for the partnership.

"I loved this picture, and we were delighted when they agreed to to send it," he says. "It's a very early Renoir. It shows that he was influenced by the masters of his generation, Manet and Courbet. It also shows that he was a very serious and capable painter who could fashion a very compelling, yet very eccentric, image."

Leonard spent six weeks cleaning the large painting and three more retouching its surface. The clown's face now glows white, as it would have originally, heightening his enigmatic expression and commanding stage presence.

Getty Museum conservator Mark Leonard
Mark Leonard puts the finishing touches on the clown's costume

Don't miss seeing The Clown, on view now in the Getty Center's 19th-century galleries. "It's a wonderful and outrageous painting," comments Schaefer. "It must have been as startling to his audience as it will be to ours."

All three paintings will be on view through March 2006 at the Getty Center, Museum, West Pavilion.

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