“It’s not about more. It’s about better,” says Scott Schaefer, the J. Paul Getty Museum’s senior curator of paintings, a few days before his retirement.
“The Getty’s collections are meant to be small even though they are meant to be great. We have added 70 pictures; we have also deaccessioned 70 pictures. So the collection is the same size as when I started — about 430 paintings and pastels — but it’s better,” he says.
As Schaefer prepares to leave his corner office at the Getty Center as well as the galleries he has visited almost daily, he leaves an impressive record of exhibitions organized under his purview.
But he considers himself a collection builder, not an exhibition curator. He took charge of a collection that included a strong holding of Baroque art and dazzling highlights such as “Portrait of a Halberdier” by the Italian artist known as Pontormo, “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889" by Belgian artist James Ensor and “Irises” by Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.
All the works acquired on his 15-year watch are “my children,” he says. “But some I love more than others.”
Titian’s “Portrait of Alfonso d’Avalos, Marchese del Vasto,” for example, is “one of the great things that came to Los Angeles.” The Venetian Renaissance masterpiece, a darkly glowing image of a Neapolitan nobleman in military attire, caught the attention of Giorgio Vasari, the Italian writer known as the father of art history, more than 400 years before it began mesmerizing visitors at the Getty.
“And it’s in faultless condition,” Schaefer says. “Titians very often aren’t.”
The Titian purchase in 2003 made an international splash because the Getty reportedly paid $70 million for a painting that had been on loan to the Louvre in Paris and was expected to stay there. The $44.9-million acquisition of “Modern Rome — Campo Vaccino,” a tour de force by 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner, was a public cliffhanger for seven months in 2010 and 2011 while the Getty waited to see if the British would match the price and keep the painting in England.
“Young Italian Woman at a Table,” a late work by French Impressionist Paul Cezanne, was a more private victory.
“I first saw it in Boston in the 1970s,” Schaefer says of the striking portrait of a woman in a traditional French costume. “It was in an exhibition called ‘Wellesley Alums Collect,’ and I never forgot it.”
The painting wasn’t on his radar in February 1999, when he joined the Getty. But it popped up on the market a few months later and the museum grabbed it for an undisclosed sum. At its unveiling, Schaefer called the Cezanne a “stunning” and “pivotal addition.” Today he deems it “one of the great cornerstones of the collection.”
Schaefer has made his mark on all of the paintings galleries but most extensively in 18th-century French art. He says that despite a strong decorative arts collection, “Mr. Getty was not terribly interested in paintings of the 18th century. Nor were my predecessors.”
Little by little, he filled the gap with fine works by the essential artists, including Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honore Fragonard, Nicolas Lancret and Hubert Robert. He also threw in “a few oddballs,” like Jean-Baptiste Pillement, a little known painter who dreamed up an exotic confection called “Market Scene in an Imaginary Oriental Port.”
“To me, there should be the great masterpiece, which speaks in a clear and authoritative voice,” he says. “But there should also be the pictures where you turn a corner and say, ‘Oh, wow, I love that,’ and you have no idea who it’s by. It’s hard to convince people that you need both the multimillion-dollar picture and the ‘oh, wow’ factor, but it’s often the ‘oh, wow’ factor that incites interest. You want visitors to wander the galleries and fall in love with something. If anyone leaves with four or five images in mind and the desire to return, I think that’s a great triumph.”
Although firmly identified with the Getty, Schaefer is in the unusual position of having had a significant impact on two of Los Angeles’ major art museums. In 1980, after his early days at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, he became curator of European paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
With the help of funds from the Ahmanson Foundation, he added about 55 Old Master paintings and a few sculptures to LACMA’s collection before his departure in 1988. He then spent 11 years working with Old Master paintings and drawings at Sotheby’s auction house in New York before returning to the museum world at the Getty.
J. Patrice Marandel, who has occupied Schaefer’s former position at LACMA since 1993, characterizes his colleague as “kind of an institution.” As the museum’s “first real curator of Old Master paintings,” he “set the tone for the work that has been going on ever since, trying to find things that are high quality and original, not just the big names.”
“Working for the Getty is more daunting because you have more money,” Marandel says. “Therefore, the mistakes are bigger. But Scott has surmounted that handicap. One of the great things he did was to face the problem of the late 19th century, where the market is so high, it’s difficult for any museum to tackle, even the Getty.”
Instead of settling for pretty pictures of A-minus or B-plus quality, Schaefer went for “spectacular paintings” that are “gutsier and more perplexing,” he says.
The prime example is “Arii Matamoe” (The Royal End) by Paul Gauguin, depicting a Tahitian king’s severed head displayed on a white cushion. The artist invented the ghoulish scene and, as Marandel says, “it’s not a crowd pleaser. You have to revise your vision of Gauguin, who is seen too often as a painter of beautiful Tahitian women.”
At 65, Schaefer seems to have been born to the highly specialized job of spending the Getty’s money on fabulous artworks. But he describes himself as the son of a used car salesman in a lower middle-class Jewish family who didn’t care about education. Fortunately, as he tells the story, he had “a rather charmed life of objects that started early.”
Born in Chicago and raised in Tucson, he visited LACMA, his first “real museum,” shortly after its opening in 1965. “I remember being lost in a welter of pastel colors,” he says, recalling the inaugural exhibition of paintings by French artist Pierre Bonnard. “I had never seen anything like it. And, yes, it probably influenced me.”
Schaefer was a business major at the University of Arizona, with aspirations of being “an educated businessman,” when he signed up for Art 7, a survey of prehistoric to renaissance art history.
“The lights went out, the slides came on, and I was sold,” he says.
Although he was one of 800 students in the class, the instructor became his mentor, helping him craft a special art history major and guiding him to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.
Schaefer received his PhD in 1976 with a dissertation on the Studiolo at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, a tiny barrel-vaulted room created in the 1570s by Francesco I de’ Medici to house an intricately organized collection of rare objects.
Schaefer’s retirement is a loss for the Getty and the city, says Kevin Salatino, director of art collections at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
To Salatino, Schaefer is part of a dying breed of curators of European painting who take a “highly academic, extremely well-trained-eye approach to collecting.” Art history tends to be taught from a broader perspective these days, but Schaefer takes pride in having passed along his knowledge to dozens of curators and interns over the years.
As Salatino notes, Schaefer is also a Los Angeles booster and longtime advocate of the “Greater Museum of Los Angeles,” a concept that the region has one museum with many branches instead of many separate institutions. As a curator who took that notion seriously, Schaefer always considered how a potential acquisition would serve the entire community.
“If you were going to acquire something significant, it had to be as good as, or better than, something that was already here,” he says. “There is no point in buying a Gainsborough if you aren’t going to buy something as good as the Huntington’s ‘Blue Boy.’ When I came to Los Angeles, the standards were set very high by some collections but not by most. Gradually they have created a body of material against which you measure greatness. That’s why museums exist.”
Schaefer has no definite plans for the next chapter of his life, but he will start by going to the spring sales of Old Master art in New York and Maastricht, Netherlands, as usual, and then get some rest. “I have never taken a serious vacation in my 15 years at the Getty,” he says.