A major Poussin painting goes to the Kimbell, not the Getty

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In announcing its newest acquisition, Nicolas Poussin’s ‘Sacrament of Ordination (Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter),’ circa 1636-40, Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum said in a press release, ‘The painting is from Poussin’s famous first set of the ‘Seven Sacraments,’ which has been universally acclaimed, virtually since its creation, as a landmark in the history of art.’

And I found myself saying, ‘I wonder why the Getty didn’t buy it?’

Of course, I think the J. Paul Getty Museum should acquire every major Old Master painting that comes on the market, simply because the slowly improving collection needs it. And this is plainly a major Old Master painting, its classically arranged frieze of figures in a landscape reportedly in pristine condition.

The great, pricey Poussin failed to sell at a London auction in December, and the Kimbell struck a private deal to buy it from the trustees of Belvoir Castle, the country estate near Nottingham where the canvas has hung for more than 225 years. (The museum reportedly paid the auction’s low estimate, $24.3 million.) An export license to send it to Texas was secured in August.


‘We paid a lot of money for it, and it was a stretch,’ Kimbell director Eric Lee told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. ‘We don’t have an unlimited budget, but we got it for an absolute steal.’

‘Sacrament of Ordination’ is the second Poussin to enter the Kimbell’s collection. In 1985 the museum acquired his early mythological work, ‘Venus and Adonis.’

If the Getty had gone after the Poussin, it would have been building on strength and adding depth. Three Poussin paintings are in its collection (one jointly owned with Pasadena’s Norton Simon Foundation), along with eight drawings. One of those three paintings -- it shows St. John baptizing the multitudes in the Jordan River, itself a figurative frieze set within an idealized landscape -- was made for the Roman antiquarian and scientist Cassiano dal Pozzo.

Cassiano was the same important patron who commissioned the ‘Seven Sacraments’ set, whence the Kimbell’s new prize comes. (Four more from the set remain at Belvoir.) The Getty painting and the Kimbell painting are virtually identical in size, suggesting more than a casual relationship.

Here’s a small shocker: The Getty’s classically ordered baptismal scene, redolent of Poussin’s commitment to fusing Christian subjects with the structural clarity of pagan Greek and Roman art, was bought by J. Paul Getty himself in 1971. The museum’s other two great paintings entered the collection long after his 1976 death, in 1981 and 1997. The oilman was a huge fan of classical antiquity, which explains his interest in Poussin’s hugely influential art. But it’s an understatement to say that he was not known for his acuity in acquiring Old Master paintings. That’s why the museum’s painting collection has struggled to reach the potential implied in its unmatched wealth.

I recommend the Star-Telegram story for a detailed explanation as to how the Kimbell managed to get an export license for a masterpiece that some badly wanted to remain in Britain. Reading it, keep in mind that the Getty Trust has divided leadership, making the museum’s director secondary to the trust’s president, and that the Getty Museum has now been without a director for 20 months. Why do I suppose that matters in Fort Worth’s good fortune in acquiring this major work of art?

Update: David Bomford, the Getty Museum’s acting director, responded to an inquiry:

‘The Museum opted not to acquire the Poussin in part because we had just completed the record-setting acquisition of the Turner [‘Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino’], but more importantly because we feel that there are two Poussin paintings already in the Getty’s collection that are at least as good: ‘Holy Family’ and ‘Landscape with Calm.’ We were also concerned about breaking up the set of the Sacraments that had been shown for many years at the National Gallery London.

‘Thank you for acknowledging the evolution of the Getty’s permanent collection. It continues to improve because we are able to make important strategic acquisitions as the opportunities arise.’


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-- Christopher Knight