A saintly sort makes her new home at LACMA

Times Staff Writer

A 17th century Italian painting that had been hidden away in an English estate for 160 years has a new home at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Pietro da Cortona’s “St. Martina,” a luminous image of a martyred young woman by an artist best known for his vast allegorical fresco on the ceiling of the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, was a gift of the Ahmanson Foundation. “It’s fantastic,” LACMA Director Michael Govan said. “Pietro da Cortona is one of the great Roman Baroque painters. We haven’t made an acquisition of this scale for some time.”

J. Patrice Marandel, the museum’s curator of European paintings and sculpture, said the gift fulfills his wish to add “some heavy hitters, some big, big names” to LACMA’s substantial holding of Baroque paintings. “Buying a painting by Cortona is like buying a sculpture by Bernini. It’s about the same level of importance, quality and beauty.”

The museum and the foundation do not disclose prices paid for art in private transactions, but Nancy Daly Riordan, chairwoman of the board at LACMA, said the foundation has been “extraordinarily generous” during the last year in contributions adding up to more than $10 million. About $2 million went for improvements to the Ahmanson Building and $8 million for art, she said. The purchases include a French Neoclassical portrait by Jacques Louis David, bought at auction for $2.7 million, and an Italian Renaissance bronze by Ludovico Lombardo, acquired privately. Lauding the foundation as “the most consistent and generous donor to the museum in its history,” Govan said the Ahmanson has spent about $100 million on art for LACMA since the 1960s. Although the old masters favored by the foundation tend to be less expensive than works by popular Impressionist, Modern and contemporary artists, the current value of the gifts is “off the charts,” he said.

Cortona’s works are plentiful in Italy, but the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., are among the few U.S. museums that own his paintings. In Southern California, the J. Paul Getty Museum has three Cortona drawings. The Getty and the Norton Simon Museum also have major works by Nicholas Poussin and Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, who worked in Rome during the same period.


LACMA’s Cortona is a 37 1/2 -by-30-inch oil, painted circa 1635-40, the period when the artist created his masterpiece at the Palazzo Barberini. Cortona, who lived from 1596 to 1669, was also an architect, but he distinguished himself as a fresco painter who propelled European Baroque painting to a new level.

In “St. Martina,” he painted a Roman virgin said to have been martyred in 226 or 228 for clinging to her Christian faith. Cortona depicted her as the embodiment of health and beauty, but she survived various tortures -- including hanging by the bloody hook that she holds in the painting -- and was finally beheaded. In the picture, she rests her right arm on the foot of a toppled sculpture she refused to worship.

Marandel said the painting was unknown to scholars because it had not been published and had remained in the same English collection since the 1840s. He became aware of the artwork about six months ago when a London broker brought him a photograph of it.

“The painting found me more than I found it,” Marandel said. The broker visited the museum about three years ago to offer an English painting. When Marandel politely turned him down, he sized up the collection for future prospects. The unknown Cortona got the curator’s attention.

“When I went to London to see it, it was as beautiful as I thought,” Marandel said. “It was difficult to go back to the Ahmanson Foundation so soon after the David and the Renaissance sculpture. I said to them, ‘I don’t know what we can do about this, but it’s really fabulous and desirable for us.’ ”

The foundation officially approved the purchase Thursday. The painting is on view at LACMA in the Thornton Gallery of the Ahmanson Building.