Pieter Brueghel the Elder, <i>Hunters in the Snow</i>, 1565
A large number of paintings in European and North American museum collections are painted on wood panel supports, not canvas. Yet as of 2008, fewer than ten individuals worldwide had mastered the skills necessary to properly conserve a panel painting, and most of them were approaching the end of their careers. The Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and the J. Paul Getty Museum were long concerned about this issue; therefore, that same year, they collaborated with the Getty Foundation to create the Panel Paintings Initiative. Over the following decade, the Foundation supported 26 grant projects that allowed existing experts to train the next generation and, at the same time, conserve significant works of art.

As its primary goal, the Panel Paintings Initiative ensured that a sufficient number of well-trained conservators were in place to maintain quality care of panel paintings when the field's leaders retired. Additionally, the initiative expanded structural panel paintings conservation expertise to encompass collections in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Ghent Altarpiece (detail)
Our Approach
The Foundation's first step towards creating the Panel Paintings Initiative was to form an advisory committee of experts. Next, in 2009 the GCI, the Foundation, and the Getty Museum organized a public symposium, bringing participants from eighteen countries to the Getty Center to signal the initiative's international approach.

A grant-funded needs assessment identified museums with large panel paintings collections, individuals who would benefit most from further training, and the number of conservators who would likely find employment in the field. The results of this assessment provided a target of training up to twenty conservators, including professionals in Central and Eastern Europe, where access to best practices had been severely limited. The assessment also indicated the necessity for additional instruction on the history, technology, and science of structural panel paintings conservation to supplement skills-based training.

The first training grants supported projects that prepared advanced conservators to become trainers themselves. These were followed by grants for intensive training residencies for midcareer and postgraduate conservators. Getty Foundation funding allowed participants to work side-by-side with leading experts on some of the most significant masterpieces in the history of Western art, including Jan and Hubert van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece (1432), and individual panels by important artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Giorgio Vasari, Leonardo da Vinci, and Peter Paul Rubens. Projects culminated in public exhibitions featuring artworks that were conserved as part of the initiative and several digital resources, including the Closer to Van Eyck and Inside Bruegel web applications. Rounding out the initiative were grants for the translation and online publication of a limited number of important historical texts, as well as for institutes and workshops throughout Europe, including for curators from Central and Eastern Europe.

Conservators at the Prado examine panel by Peter Paul Rubens
When the Panel Paintings Initiative concluded in 2018, at least twenty professionals who participated in it were either in senior conservation positions at leading institutions or on their way to establishing careers in the field. Dozens more had increased their knowledge as a result of the international workshops.

This initiative would not have been successful without the dedication of a small body of international experts: George Bisacca, Roberto Buda, Ciro Castelli, José de la Fuente, Jean-Albert Glatigny, Ray Marchant, Salvatore Meccio, Mauro Parri, Roberto Saccuman, and Andrea Santacesaria. These trainers and the new generation of conservators they have mentored has secured a safer future for Old Master paintings on wooden panels.

For more information on initiative results and individual projects, see the Panel Paintings Initiative report.

Press and Publicity

Image top left: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, 1565. ©Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Image top right: Conservators prepare a boxwood knife handle during training related to the treatment of Giorgio Vasari's Last Supper (1546) at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence. Image courtesy Sue Ann Chui