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22 essential artworks at the Getty and the surprising stories behind them

A visitor looks out to a maze of hedges, part of Robert Irwin's epic "Central Garden" at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.
Robert Irwin’s “Central Garden,” a living artwork at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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On its 86-acre Brentwood hilltop, the J. Paul Getty Museum is easily the most popular art museum in Los Angeles, with well over 1.25 million visitors in post-pandemic 2023. Not bad for an institution open less than 30 years.

Art museums have been compared to icebergs, with the imposing tip of their collections on permanent view, while a larger mass is necessarily submerged in storage most of the time, turning up in exhibitions temporarily. The Getty is no different — except for the notable fact that a good chunk of what’s customarily submerged ranks among its greatest artistic holdings. And not just the finest in its own collection, focused on European art, but also among all the world’s museums.

A Getty visitor views Monet's "Still Life With Flowers and Fruit" in the West Pavilion.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Sunbathers soak up the rays on a lawn at the Getty Center.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Incomparable describes its 222 illuminated medieval manuscripts, one of the nation’s three best collections. The 6,500 pages include countless small but astonishing paintings, some no larger than several inches on a side. The Getty’s 48,200 photographs, global in scope, both complement and dwarf collections elsewhere. Given susceptibility to harmful light, though, selections from the manuscript and photograph collections must be temporarily rotated in Getty shows.

Still, there are lots of wonderful things to see among the hundreds on relatively permanent display. What follows is a selection of 22 of them — paintings, sculptures and decorative objects — most chosen from throughout the museum’s four pavilions, arrayed around a central courtyard. Note, however, that this is most definitely not a “best of” list (although some works would surely turn up on such a selection), but one chosen instead to yield a sense of the diverse artistic satisfactions to be found throughout the place. There are plenty of those.

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Martin Puryear, ‘That Profile’

1999, stainless steel and bronze; outdoors on the tram arrival plaza

Martin Puryear, "That Profile," 1999, stainless steel and bronze
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

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Puryear’s monumental sculpture, which is four stories tall, greets visitors on the tram arrival plaza with a poetic admixture of time and place. Puryear is an American artist of African descent who has worked in a sculptural idiom of European derivation for nearly five decades. His marvelous open-framework sculpture, “That Profile,” unites 15th century Nigerian and Italian motifs. Fashioned from pan-African basketry techniques rendered in an industrial form with steel rods and bronze knotting, a sleek, elegant, Ife-style head is set before a ledge against a backdrop of blue sky and rolling green hills. The composition derives from Florentine Renaissance portraiture, where the subject is seen in profile seated before a window, through which a verdant landscape unfurls.

A sly element of wit further enlivens Puryear’s motif, since the profile format popular in the early Renaissance partly derived from the portraits of emperors commonly found on Roman coins. The ultra-wealthy Getty Trust, founded by a billionaire aficionado of ancient Greek and Roman art and a collector purported to be the richest man in the world at his 1976 death, would surely understand.


NORTH PAVILION

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Master of the Rimini Altarpiece, ‘Saint Philip’

About 1420-30, alabaster; North Pavilion, Gallery 103

Master of the Rimini Altarpiece, “Saint Philip,” about 1420-30, alabaster
(J.Paul Getty Museum)

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St. Philip looks mighty startled — eyes shut, mouth hanging agape and standing as ramrod straight as the wooden cross that’s nearly as big as his body and held upright in his hands.

No wonder. In the New Testament tale where Jesus proposed to feed 5,000 hungry people at Jewish Passover with just five small loaves of bread and a couple little fishes, Philip had expressed serious doubt. When the miracle promptly happened, it is certainly understandable why he’d be left slack-jawed — stunned and convinced of divinity.

This deluxe saintly figure, just 17 inches tall, by a gifted but unidentified sculptor is exquisitely carved from light brown alabaster. A soft, glassy stone whose partial translucence imparts a suitable degree of radiant warmth, it’s also an expensive material, favored by wealthy Catholic patrons in the 15th century Netherlands.

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Dieric Bouts, ‘The Annunciation’

About 1450-55, distemper on linen; North Pavilion, Gallery 203

Dieric Bouts, “The Annunciation,” about 1450-55, distemper on linen
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

To infuse a mystical painting with an aura that merges reality with a dream, Haarlem artist Bouts employed delicate materials with a capacity for atmospheric refinement. The support is fine linen, made from fibrous flax rather than fluffy cotton, while the paint is distemper, a fragile form of whitewash mixed with powdered colors. (Some hues have shifted over centuries.) Few distemper paintings on linen have survived from 15th century Europe, but this rare gem is from a four- or five-part altarpiece, with related panels housed at Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum and London’s National Gallery.

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A simplified theatrical drama plays out in a stage-like interior. The archangel Gabriel draws back a bed curtain to announce to a demure Mary, humbly seated on the floor with a prayer book at her side, that she will be giving birth. God is present as soft light, which drifts down from above, further diffused by side illumination through a stained-glass window. Bouts invests the scene with a contemplative hush of supplication. Clarity frames mystery.

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Vittore Carpaccio, ‘Hunting on the Lagoon (recto); Letter Rack (verso)’

About 1490-95, oil on panel; North Pavilion, Gallery 204

Vittore Carpaccio, “Hunting on the Lagoon (recto); Letter Rack (verso),” about 1490-95, oil on panel.
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

Three drawings by the Venetian artist are in the Getty collection, but it’s this eccentric panel painting of hunting waterfowl with a bow that fascinates.

What’s rather odd to today’s eyes isn’t just the subject of men standing in shallow boats on a glassy lagoon aiming their bows down into the water where birds swim, bonking them on the head with pellets to knock them out. The eccentricity is also in the form: The wooden panel, painted on both sides, front and back, was apparently made as a decorative cabinet door or luxury window shutter. (Old hinge marks are visible.) On the back, it’s painted as an illusion of a letter rack, although the lower portion is abruptly cut off.

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Vittore Carpaccio, “Hunting on the Lagoon (recto); Letter Rack (verso),” about 1490-95, oil on panel.
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

And that strange lily on the front that pops up out of nowhere from the bottom? Turns out that at some point in the last half a millennium, a greedy seller apparently decided two Carpaccio paintings could bring more in the marketplace than one, so the bottom half was sawed off. The lower section, now in the Correr Museum in Venice, shows two courtesans sitting on a balcony overlooking the lagoon where the hunters cavort, a vase perched on the ledge with a telltale flowerless stem rising from it.

The foreground and the background became two separate pictures, which are conceptually linked. Think of them together, and those foreground courtesans add suggestive new meaning to the Getty’s background picture of men on the hunt.

These are the 16 must-see works of art from permanent collections at the Huntington, LACMA, the Getty, MOCA, the Norton Simon, UCLA’s Hammer Museum and more.

July 22, 2022

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Jacopo Pontormo, ‘Portrait of a Halberdier (Francesco Guardi?)’

1529-30, oil on canvas; North Pavilion, Gallery 204

Jacopo Pontormo, “Portrait of a Halberdier (Francesco Guardi?),” 1529-30, oil on canvas.
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

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Pontormo’s elegant rendition of a teenage nobleman dressed as a Florentine foot soldier, reputed to be the greatest Italian Mannerist portrait in America when it was on long-term loan to New York’s exquisite Frick Museum, once belonged to Mathilde Bonaparte, strong-willed niece of Napoleon. At a closely watched auction in 1989, eight years before the Getty Center opened, the nascent museum plopped down $35.2 million for it — that’s $88.6 million now, adjusted for inflation. The astronomical sum approached sky-high prices then being paid for Van Gogh and Picasso, not Old Master paintings, but it sent a signal: On the way to opening, the hugely wealthy Getty was prepared to do what it took to upgrade its then-mediocre collection.

The Getty has been doing pretty well at that. The silly-putty eccentricity of Pontormo’s pouty and elongated figure has since been joined by exceptional examples by two other Mannerist masters — Agnolo Bronzino, his star student; and his great sensualist rival, Parmigianino.

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Dosso Dossi, ‘Allegory of Fortune’

Circa 1530, oil on canvas; North Pavilion, Gallery 205

Dosso Dossi, “Allegory of Fortune,” circa 1530, oil on canvas
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

Do you play the California Lottery? Then this is a painting for you.

Chance — the half-naked guy on the left — waves around a fistful of lottery tickets above a golden urn, as if to taunt Fortune — the naked lady on the right. He’s firmly planted on a solid rock, but she’s not. Fortune sits on a fragile bubble, ready to burst at any moment and send her cornucopia of abundance flying. Chance is always in place, but prosperity is anything except a sure thing.

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Eustache Le Sueur, ‘Crucifixion’

1650-55, oil on copper; East Pavilion, Gallery 206

Eustache Le Sueur, “Crucifixion,” 1650-55, oil on copper
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

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Not a lot is happening in this smallish picture, which was made for personal, one-on-one contemplation. Except for the cross, the landscape image is largely blank.

The action, if that’s the right word, is focused on the slow, agonizing process of bleeding to death, narrated by blood trickling from the hands and feet of a crucified Jesus. Le Sueur (a founder of France’s Royal Academy) has removed almost every potentially distracting object, leaving behind a totally barren landscape, the merest vague suggestion of a distant village and a sky empty of everything but threatening clouds. He’s drained all the color too.

Except, that is, for red. Amid a range limited to neutrals — grays, tans, browns, off-white — bright crimson blood stands out. The blood marks the brutally nailed palms and feet, runs down the wood and trails across the ground, leading to a skull lying at the foot of the cross. The remains of Adam, the first man, were said by early Christians to have been buried at Golgotha, site of the crucifixion.

Here, the juxtaposition says “the new Adam” hangs dying on the cross. Le Sueur omitted the women who stayed throughout the crucifixion’s horror, in favor of featuring Adam’s skull, symbol of Catholic patriarchy. The painting is a fastidious, tightly controlled image hinged on the pain of starting over.


EAST PAVILION

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Artemisia Gentileschi, ‘Lucretia’

Circa 1627, oil on canvas; East Pavilion, Gallery 206

Artemisia Gentileschi, “Lucretia,” circa 1627, oil on canvas
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

At least four times, Gentileschi painted the suicide by stabbing of Lucretia, virtuous wife of an ancient Roman nobleman, who proclaimed her innocence in the aftermath of a rape. The horror of her cruel death led to a revolt that toppled a corrupt monarch.

In this Baroque tour de force, Gentileschi orchestrates the compositional design as a surprisingly complicated array of competing arcs, diagonals, spirals, curves and ovals — except for one moment of riveting visual calm amid the structural storm: The blade is poised on an even keel, aimed directly at the fleshy, dramatic center. Yikes.

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Peter Paul Rubens, ‘The Entombment’

Around 1612, oil on canvas; East Pavilion, Gallery 202

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Peter Paul Rubens, “The Entombment,” around 1612, oil on canvas
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

Color is an engine driving Rubens’ painting of Jesus being entombed. The muddy walls of a rock-cut burial cave are glimpsed at the top, in stark contrast to the bright hues that describe the figures’ robes and Jesus’ prominent wounds. Even the mourners’ red-rimmed eyes subtly echo the color of flowing blood.

The skin of the limp body — draped all the way across the canvas — is what speaks loudest: The bloodless flesh of a corpse going bluish gray says dead. Dead.

Mortality sets the stage for the most remarkable passage, where the Virgin Mary’s creamy pinkish hand carries her son’s drooping gray arm, held in a soft embrace. Rubens juxtaposes her warm and his cold flesh. It’s the only place in a complex scene of a cumbersome body being moved into a tomb where the skin of the living and the dead touch. John the Evangelist’s hand is wrapped in white cloth on the left, and that of Mary, the mother of James the Younger and Joseph, at the right appears veiled as well. At the rear, Mary Magdalene’s hand is raised to wipe away her tears.

But Jesus and Mary connect. Suddenly, you realize all the color has been drained from Mary’s face too. Unlike her hand, Rubens has chosen to paint her face the same bluish gray as the dead body of Jesus. “The Entombment,” whatever its religious narrative, is first and foremost an image of profound human empathy in a maternal encounter with devastating loss.

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Hans Hoffmann, ‘A Hare in the Forest’

Circa 1585, oil on panel; East Pavilion, Gallery 203

Hans Hoffmann, “A Hare in the Forest,” circa 1585, oil on panel
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

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Not a lot is known about the German Renaissance painter , but this much is certain: He was crazy about the great Nuremberg artist Albrecht Dürer, who died about the same time Hoffmann was born. Like a number of contemporaneous Dürer fans — and better than most — he painted and drew copies and close approximations of the elder artist’s celebrated work.

Among them is “A Hare in the Forest,” a rare Hoffmann oil painting, which starts with Dürer’s exquisite watercolor of a young rabbit, centered in a blank field of paper, and then sets the bunny in a fertile woodland, filled with acutely rendered plants, butterflies, snails, lizards and bugs, many of which would never be found in the same place. An animal study merges with still life and landscape to form an eccentric masterwork of inventive painterly naturalism.

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Philips Koninck, ‘A Panoramic Landscape’

1665, oil on canvas; East Pavilion, Gallery 204

Philips Koninck, “A Panoramic Landscape,” 1665, oil on canvas
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

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What is wrong with Koninck’s dazzling panorama of a radiant Dutch countryside? Well, the lovely and expansive view out over farms, fields and water is seen from the vantage point of a high hill — and there are none of those in Holland, a place of naturally flat, low-lying plains. (Some of it is even below sea level.) Koninck made up the aerial view, convincingly transforming earthbound experience. It’s as phantasmagorical as reading pictures in the clouds overhead, a vast sky that fills nearly half the canvas.

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Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, ‘The Abduction of Europa’

1632, oil on oak panel; East Pavilion, Gallery 205

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, “The Abduction of Europa,” 1632, oil on oak panel
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

Of Getty’s five Rembrandt paintings, “The Abduction of Europa” is the most unusual — a rare mythological scene, reinterpreted from Ovid’s popular “Metamorphoses” by an artist revered today for the emotional depth of his portraiture. (See Getty’s other Rembrandts for that.) The Roman god Jupiter, disguised as a white bull, spirits away Europa, a beautiful young Middle East princess, carrying her off from her stunned entourage to a new land that will be named for her.

The quality of this waking dream is rather different from Bouts’ “The Annunciation” several rooms away, here created by the paradoxical fusion of precisely rendered, jewel-like specificity within a hazy atmosphere in an ambiguous location. Rembrandt was perhaps guided by the opening line of Ovid’s Latin poem: In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora (“I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities”).

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Pietro Bernini and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, ‘Boy With a Dragon’

Around 1617, marble; East Pavilion, Gallery 101

Pietro Bernini and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, “Boy with a Dragon,” around 1617, marble
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

In addition to a full-size marble bust of an imposing Pope Paul V, Gian Lorenzo Bernini is represented in the Getty collection by a modest sculpture, perhaps for a fountain, he made when he was just a teenager, working with his dad, Pietro, in Rome. (The supremely gifted Gian Lorenzo was 23 when he carved the pope.) “Boy With a Dragon” is a weirdly playful composition. What appears to be a cherubic baby Hercules sits on the back of a scaly dragon. He burbles with a big, chubby-cheeked grin as he impishly spreads the dragon’s jaw wide and snaps it in two, the toothsome head cradled in the boy’s lap.

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However, his gaze is focused elsewhere. Baby Hercules barely pays attention to the feat. Child’s play, in other words, for a future heavyweight hero.

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Johann Paul Schor (attributed), ‘Side Table’

Circa 1670, gesso and gilt poplar; East Pavilion, Gallery 102

Johann Paul Schor (attributed), “Side Table,” circa 1670, gesso and gilt poplar
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

It’s a table. Honest. A table that no one is quite sure had any practical function beyond making a viewer gape.

A barely perceptible eagle is embedded within the twirling branches of a carved laurel tree, which rises up from the base to become an elaborate riff on a seashell, the kind Botticelli used to deliver a birthing Venus to the frothy shore. There’s no flat surface anywhere to put something on — not even your car keys — and at any rate a vase, globe or book would be lost in the glittering decorative torrent of gold.

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Austrian designer Schor worked in Rome with Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a sculptor who is known to have also choreographed grand pageants for monarchs. The speculation is that the table might have been made to attach to the front of a float in a royal street parade.


SOUTH PAVILION

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André-Charles Boulle, ‘Cabinet on Stand’

Around 1675-80, oak veneered with pewter, brass, tortoise shell, horn, ebony, ivory and wood marquetry, with bronze mounts; South Pavilion, Gallery 103

André-Charles Boulle, “Cabinet on Stand,” around 1675–1680, oak pewter, brass, tortoise shell, horn, ebony, ivory, marquetry
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

Boulle lived in the Louvre, back when it was a palace and not yet France’s first art museum, where the over-the-top, even gross excess of King Louis XIV could play out in the production of elaborate furnishings. Among more than 20 chests, cabinets, wall lights, chandeliers and clocks by the incomparable Boulle in the Getty collection, this piece is the most gloriously ostentatious. It’s a chest of drawers as an accolade to Louis’ eminence.

The cabinet is held aloft by two heroic figures — Hercules on the right and Amazon Queen Hippolyta on the left — signaling its role as a proclamation of triumphant power. That’s the king’s profile, flanked by military regalia, in the gilt medallion over the chest’s door, which is decorated with intricately crafted marquetry emblems showing a screaming eagle (the Holy Roman Empire) and a ferocious lion (Spain), both subservient to the strutting rooster (France) occupying dead center. The cock crows at dawn, after all, so you’ve got to get up pretty early if you want to defeat the Sun King.

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May 17, 2023

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Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, ‘Paneled Room (sitting room)’

Around 1790-95, painted and gilded oak and plaster, marble, bronze and modern mirror glass; South Pavilion, Gallery 116

Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, “Paneled Room (sitting room),” around 1790–1795
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

The Getty’s collection of 17th and 18th century French decorative arts is arguably America’s finest. A virtual museum-within-the-museum, filling around 20 rooms, is almost too much to take in — which, appropriately enough, was often the flamboyant art’s point. Its lavish splendor puts mere mortals in their place.

The brutal horror of colonial slavery underwrote much of it, including the original construction of this elegant Neoclassical sitting room, one of several complete period rooms on view. It was designed for a wealthy white sugar plantation owner in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) by the renowned Ledoux, for a proposed Parisian real estate development. A cubic floor plan, Greek-style Doric pilasters, arched reflecting mirrors, delicate painted panels with symmetrical sphinxes, cherubs, nymphs, palmettos, floral garlands and more — Ledoux’s decorative schemes were hugely popular among aristocrats. They claimed history’s inheritance.

Detail from "Paneled Room (sitting room)" by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The architect, thrown into prison when the revolution broke out, managed to escape the guillotine. Released, he stopped building and began to compile his designs into what would become an influential set of publications. Later, the sugar plantation slaver was executed.

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Gérard Jean Galle, ‘Chandelier’

Around 1818-19, gilt bronze and tin, glass, painted copper. South Pavilion, Gallery 114

Gérard Jean Galle, “Chandelier,” around 1818–1819, gilt bronze and tin, glass, painted copper

The design for a hot air balloon studded with stars and ringed by 18 candles suspends a clear cut-glass bowl, where water and small goldfish could animate this whimsical Rococo chandelier. Air, fire, water — the design’s only missing element is earth, which is where we’re located when we are bathed in the fantastic fixture’s light.

Detail of the cut-glass bowl in Gérard Jean Galle's chandelier.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Galle’s father worked for Marie Antoinette, but the French Revolution unsurprisingly had a major impact on the aristocratic market for spendthrift furnishings like this. The July (or Second) Revolution of 1830 decimated what little remained, and the younger Galle, despite his extravagant talent — plus his desperate offers of steep discounts — promptly went bankrupt. He died in abject poverty.


WEST PAVILION

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19

Antonio Canova, ‘Apollo Crowning Himself’

1781-82, marble. West Pavilion, Gallery 101

Antonio Canova, “Apollo Crowning Himself,” 1781-82, marble
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

Apollo, the most beautiful Olympian deity, places a laurel wreath on his own head, much as a victorious ancient Greek athlete might. Italian sculptor Canova carved his naked god in pristine white marble as handsome, buff and poised — but, unfortunately, the head came out too small for his body. (Carving marble, there’s no going back.) The 24-year-old artist didn’t quite get the proportions right, but his rise to Neoclassical primacy began with this idealized, half-life-size sculpture.

20

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Modern Rome — Campo Vaccino’

1839, oil on canvas; West Pavilion, Gallery 201

Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino,” 1839, oil on canvas
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

As religious and aristocratic forms of government cracked, crumbled and began to give way to emergent, struggling efforts at democratic self-governance as the 19th century unfolded, Rome’s preeminence as historical fountainhead of Western civilization’s dual forms of rule began to unravel. British painter Turner portrayed the ancient town, home to Caesars and Popes, as an almost hallucinatory ruin, suspended between the setting sun and rising moon and rendered in fractured strokes of diaphanous color.

Turner hadn’t been to Italy for a decade, but in his vaporous painting, Rome remains the Eternal City, now transformed into a hauntingly beautiful memory. Life floats on as children and goats cavort.

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21

Claude Monet, ‘Sunrise (Marine)’

1872 or 1873, oil on canvas; West Pavilion, Gallery 204

Claude Monet, “Sunrise (Marine),” 1872 or 1873, oil on canvas
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

A harbor scene near where the Seine River empties into the English Channel, one of four pictures by perennial favorite Monet, joins a somewhat ponderous early floral still life and two blazingly mature masterpieces — a shimmering Rouen Cathedral façade and a wintry landscape with wheatstacks in the snow. But “Sunrise (Marine)” is special because it’s among the small group of his paintings that first shocked critics and gave Impressionism its name.

Monet’s unmixed dabs of paint are laid down on the surface of the canvas, just like the spots of fractured light of the orange sun quivering behind gray fog and flickering across the blue-green surface of the watery harbor at dawn. The physical object (paint) rhymes with the immaterial image (light) in what Monet said was an impression of the harbor, not a view of it. One result of all that broken brushwork is a completed painting that contemporary viewers dismissed as scandalously unfinished — a mere oil sketch, and thus a cardinal offense in the buttoned-down world of officially sanctioned French art.

22

James Ensor, ‘Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889’

1888, oil on canvas. West Pavilion, Gallery 103

James Ensor, “Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889,” 1888, oil on canvas
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

A raucous scene of wild Mardi Gras celebration blends with the imagined arrival of Jesus into Belgium’s capital. A haloed figure, who looks suspiciously like the artist himself, rides a donkey, as the gospels say that the rabble-rousing prophet did into Jerusalem before he was crucified by the Roman establishment. The bold and adventurous painter, a confirmed atheist, nonetheless identifies as being a subject of social mockery.

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He’s almost imperceptible among the massive throng of banner-waving clowns, soldiers, musicians, buffoons, harlequins, mimes and costumed marchers that floods the city’s streets. Modern society is a complete mess, Ensor warns, an urban deluge of surging incoherence. And don’t expect salvation, even if the possibility might pass by right under your nose.

The “1889” in the title tells us that the 1888 canvas was painted a year before the event could have happened, one clue to the artist’s visionary intention for the big painting. Ensor’s greatest work, it’s more than 14 feet wide and eight feet high — emphatic, to say the least.

23

Robert Irwin, ‘Central Garden’

1997, mixed media installation; outdoors between the museum and the library

Visitors enjoy the Getty's "Central Garden," where bougainvillea blooms in steel towers.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Contemporary Land Art is often associated with the West, but usually that means the wide open and rough-hewn deserts of Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. Irwin’s art occupies a different realm. He designed an urban arroyo, cut into the earth and descending between the Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute’s library, and he filled it with a spectacular array of trees, plants and flowing water. In the bowl at the bottom, a seemingly impossible azalea maze in the center of Irwin’s man-made lake, fed by a waterfall, emphasizes the “culture” in horticulture — apt for the garden’s unparalleled location.

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Two people walk among the flowers in bloom at the "Central Garden."
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)
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