The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, better known as the Ghent Altarpiece, is among the world’s outstanding works of art. Painted on wood in 1432, before canvas became widely used as a support for paintings, it encapsulates all the lavish beauty and technical skill of early Netherlandish painting. Dismantled twice in the 16th century to protect it from religious iconoclasts, then stolen and hidden away in a salt mine during World War II, the multipanel altarpiece has suffered a varied and challenging history—a fate it shares with many panel paintings today.
“What we are really hoping to do with this initiative is to support projects that bring together senior specialists, a major work of art that needs treatment, and a group of postgraduate and midcareer conservators to facilitate transfer of skills. In a way we are reviving the old workshop model that has served us so well in the past, in which a master passes on his or her expertise to apprentices. Over the course of this initiative we hope to train the next generation of panel conservators to carry this specialized knowledge into the future."
— Antoine Wilmering, Senior Program Officer, The Getty Foundation
Warped, cracked, and unstable, many panel paintings pose difficult and vexing conservation problems, which fewer and fewer specialists are equipped to address. Today, only about ten individuals worldwide are experienced enough to work on the most delicate cases, and many are approaching retirement with few opportunities to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. The Getty’s Panel Painting Initiative, a joint effort of the Getty Foundation, the Getty Museum, and the Getty Conservation Institute, responds to the dual threat that confronts panel paintings today: complex structural conservation needs and a rapidly waning number of specialists able to treat them.
Unlike younger generations of conservators who are trained in predominantly academic settings, the few remaining senior specialists possess a rare combination are fine woodworking skills, deep art historical knowledge, and impeccable aesthetic judgment. They approach panel paintings as fine works of art rather than static objects—tailoring structural stabilization with critical skill, honed over many years of studio practice.
"There is a significant expertise gap in the field of panel conservation at the moment. Most programs today are based in universities, and younger conservators like myself receive very little handson training to prepare us for the significant challenges that these paintings on wood present. While conservation has certainly gained much from being formally recognized as a profession and from moving into academia, it has also created problems." — SueAnn Chui, Assistant Conservator, J. Paul Getty Museum
The Getty’s Panel Paintings Initiative is funding a range of coordinated efforts to create new avenues for training emerging and midcareer professionals, to notch up advanced practitioners, and to increase knowledge on panel preservation. Some of this training has been undertaken on some of the great masterpieces of European painting. To date, the Getty Foundation has funded a survey of the field of panel painting conservation; a bibliographic research project; a series of residencies for young and midlevel conservators to acquire skills in panel stabilization; and shortterm workshops and meetings on topics of special interest in panel conservation.