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ART : Love, Death and Rebirth : Titian’s ‘Venus and Adonis,’ the Getty Museum’s latest addition, is a story of an object of neglect that became an object of desire, and how its suitors brought the ailing 400-year-old canvas back to passionate life

<i> Suzann</i> e<i> Muchnic is The Times' art writer. </i>

Two things about Titian are widely known:

He was the greatest painter in Venice in the 16th Century, when the city rose to its pinnacle of artistic achievement.

You can’t buy a major work by him, even if you can afford it, because they are all owned by museums.

But in 1991, when a soiled painting of “Venus and Adonis” was hauled down from its obscure position in an English country house and put up for auction at Christie’s in London, conventional wisdom on the second count had to be revised.

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Clumsily restored and darkened, the painting had been installed high above eye level in the home of the second Earl of Normanton, where scholars had long squinted at it and, for the most part, dismissed it as the work of Titian’s assistants. When they finally got a close look, however, most agreed that “Venus and Adonis” was no mere workshop picture. It was essentially the work of the master himself.

Excitement grew when George Goldner, then curator of paintings and drawings for the J. Paul Getty Museum, indicated an interest in the picture. When he summoned Getty conservator Andrea Rothe to inspect the painting’s condition, the word was out: The Getty would go for the Titian.

As it turned out, the Getty did not buy the painting at Christie’s auction on Dec. 13, 1991. A partnership of dealers--Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox of London and Herman Shickman of New York --snagged it at $13.47 million, a record sum for a Titian and nearly twice the painting’s estimated selling price of $7.2 million. The dealers claimed that they had purchased the picture as an investment, but the Getty soon arranged to buy it from them at an undisclosed price, contingent upon receiving an export license from British authorities.

The license was granted about four months later, and in due time the Getty announced the purchase. Now--after a year and a half of treatment and study in the museum’s conservation laboratory--"Venus and Adonis” is scheduled to go on view on Tuesday at the museum in Malibu.

“We don’t expect to make an acquisition like this very often. It’s too late in the game,” Getty Museum Director John Walsh said of the spectacular new addition.

Indeed, landing a major work by one of the Western world’s supreme painters is something of a miracle, said Goldner, who left the Getty in July to head the drawings and prints departments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The best the Getty might have hoped for was a minor example, but the museum now claims one of a very few significant Titians in U.S. museums, second only to “Rape of Europa” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, he said.

Philip Conisbee, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s former curator of European paintings and sculpture, also lauded the purchase.

“I think it is the boldest and best acquisition the Getty has made in European paintings. . . . I would certainly have bought it for the county if I had the means,” said Conisbee, who left LACMA in the fall to become curator of French paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

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Fortunately for the Getty, such miracles do happen.

“We didn’t expect to get the Pontormo either,” Walsh said of the Italian Mannerist’s “Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici,” which had been on long-term loan to the Frick Collection for many years before the Getty bought it for $35.2 million in a 1989 auction.

The Titian joins the Pontormo and Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi” in a select group of the Getty’s greatest purchases, Walsh said. “Venus and Adonis” will be the centerpiece of a “great little group of Venetian pictures,” he said, referring to such paintings as Vittore Carpaccio’s “Hunting on the Lagoon,” Dosso Dossi’s “Mythological Scene” and “An Allegory of Fortune,” Sebastiano del Piombo’s “Portrait of Pope Clement VII” and Paolo Veronese’s “Portrait of a Man.” The High Italian Renaissance is “practically a mined-out vein,” Walsh said, but the museum has had surprising success in that area.

“Venus and Adonis,” which measures about 5 by 6 1/2 feet, was created circa 1555-1560. Based on a mythological scene in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the painting portrays a nude, voluptuous Venus attempting to restrain her lover from going off to hunt because she fears he will be killed. “Be brave against timorous creatures, but against bold creatures boldness is not safe,” she warns in the literature. But Adonis declines her invitation to stay with her under a shady poplar tree and goes off to his death.

The painting is likely to win the hearts of the public both for its subject matter and expressive style, Walsh said.

“Like many works by Titian, this one really tells a story,” he said. “In this case, the story is about love and death, and you can see that across the room. You can see Venus trying to hold back this impetuous kid and that he and the dogs are going off to hunt.

“Everyone knew the story in Titian’s time, and once you know that Adonis was going off to get gored to death by a wild boar, and that for days and days Venus had been sleeping with him, and trying to persuade him not to do this, you realize what the story is. It’s brains against testosterone, I suppose, but also the pull of action and sensuality, adventure and common sense. It’s a story that’s part of everyone’s life.

“So that’s part of the appeal--a story we understand,” Walsh said. “The other half is . . . a cast of characters--a beautiful Venus, an Adonis whose face shows a combination of pity and arrogance. It’s all painted very solidly, so you believe in the characters . . . but softly and very expressively, and within a landscape that’s full of movement, which tells you something very big is going on. . . . It’s a universal story but quite particular in the warm, sympathetic way it is handled.”

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The story and its style of delivery are easier to appreciate now that the painting has been cleaned and restored by Rothe, the Getty’s conservator in charge of paintings conservation. To the untrained eye, however, differences in the work’s “before” and “after” appearance are not dramatic. There were no gaping holes to be patched, as has been the case in some of the laboratory’s projects.

“The major problem was pinch marks due to the fact that the painting had been rolled up at a certain time in history,” Rothe said, in an interview at the museum’s conservation laboratory. Although the exact circumstances and date of the damage are unknown, ultraviolet photographs taken by the Getty have revealed parallel lines of stress running horizontally across the canvas.

Only minor spots of pigment had actually flaked off, but “outrageous masses of color were used to retouch the relatively small losses,” he said. Awkward restorations done 20 or 30 years ago in London and much earlier in Italy masked sections of the original painting and disguised the underlying condition, he said.

Titian sometimes built up as many as 30 layers of thin glazes on his paintings, and these delicate glazes are frequently damaged or destroyed by overzealous cleaning, Rothe said. Failing to understand the extent to which unstable colors darken and glazes become more transparent, restorers sometimes think they can get back to brighter colors if they remove varnish. The danger is that they may actually remove Titian’s glazes, he said, “and if cleaning is too harsh, there is nothing much you can do (to save a painting).”

Listening to Rothe’s account of a typical Titian dilemma, Dawson Carr, the Getty’s associate curator of paintings, said: “That’s why Titians often look so raw and they lack a sense of modeled form and subtlety. So when Andrea started finding glazes on ‘Venus and Adonis’ we were elated.”

Although some of Titian’s work had been painted over in “Venus and Adonis,” it hadn’t been destroyed. As Rothe worked--proceeding through a four-step cleaning process of using progressively stronger solvents in increasingly selective areas--he revealed many subtleties, including a dimple on Venus’ back. Where losses of the original paint were disruptive to the eye, he filled them. In keeping with standard practice, all of the new conservation work is fully reversible.

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Titian’s popularity has made the artist’s work particularly vulnerable to damage, so some observers feared that “Venus and Adonis” might not be salvageable. But after examining it in London, Rothe disagreed. “I felt the condition hadn’t compromised the painting so far that you couldn’t retrieve it again,” he said.

Recalling his excitement when Goldner called and confided, “I think we have a real one,” Rothe said he was suffering from influenza at the time, but he dragged himself out of bed and onto a plane for London. “I felt absolutely revived after I saw it,” he said. “I could recognize what the problems were.”

The painting is not as good as new, however. As the work has aged, greens in the landscape have turned brown, for example, and that process cannot be reversed, but Rothe’s faith in the picture appears to have been rewarded.

“I think Andrea Rothe has done a wonderful job,” said National Gallery curator Conisbee, who watched the painting emerge from layers of dirt and varnish during periodic visits to the Getty. “He revealed fresh color and rich passages of impasto and created a greater sense of space in the painting.”

“Venus and Adonis” is the work of an immensely successful artist who was named Tiziano Vecellio and became known as Titian. He was born between 1480 and 1490 and died of the plague in 1576. Titian was trained in Giovanni Bellini’s workshop in Venice, worked as assistant to Giorgione and in the late 1520s became the leading painter in Venice. As his fame spread throughout Italy and beyond, his clients included Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Pope Paul III.

Titian created several versions of “Venus and Adonis,” others of which can be found at the National Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery in Washington and the Prado Museum in Madrid. At some point in the future, Walsh hopes to assemble all these works at the Getty for public exhibition and scholarly study.

The prototype for the Getty’s Titian is the Prado’s more classical, restrained treatment of “Venus and Adonis,” which was commissioned in the 1550s by Philip II of Spain. Nothing is known of circumstances surrounding the commission of the Getty’s Titian, but the painting has been in distinguished collections, including that of Queen Christina of Sweden.

“Given who had owned it, we should have known that it might very well be a better version than people supposed,” Walsh said.

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The Getty’s “Venus and Adonis” remains a topic of debate, however, with scholars disagreeing on exactly how much help Titian might have had with various parts of the painting.

“There is always discussion and speculation about who did what in paintings that were created in large workshops of successful artists,” Walsh said. “Titian was in demand by everybody,” he noted, and works created in his studio ranged from those done with minimal assistance to those he merely authorized.

“We care very much that Titian’s hand (is strongly in evidence in our painting), and we think it is there for the eye to see,” Walsh said. “But we care more about the quality of the painting and its effectiveness, the importance of the subject and the state of conservation than the more arcane questions of whether an assistant painted this or that bit of drapery. The great thing is that now the painting is out where it can be seen.”


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