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‘Virgin and Child With Saint Anne’ sees the light at the Getty

Originally posted by the Los Angeles Times
February 5, 2013

The Leonardo da Vinci workshop painting, which has been mostly in storage at UCLA, is on view with the Getty’s Italian Renaissance paintings.

“The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne,” a highly prized painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the collection of the Louvre, is having a big year.

Last spring, the sensitive portrayal of St. Anne with her daughter and grandson was the keystone of an exhibition at the Parisian museum. For the first time, Leonardo’s “final masterpiece” — in process for years and left unfinished at the artist’s death in 1519 — was exhibited with his compositional sketches, preparatory drawings and landscape studies, along with related works by other artists.

A few months later, the painting traveled to Lens, an industrial town in northern France where the Louvre was establishing an ultra-modern satellite museum and displaying an impressive sampling of the Louvre’s collections.

And now a different version of the painting is on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Featured in the Paris exhibition and made in Leonardo’s workshop, though not by the master himself, the luminous work will be shown with the Getty’s Italian Renaissance paintings for an indefinite period — in return for analysis and treatment carried out in the museum’s conservation lab.

It’s also going to surprise local art watchers. Unlike most other works that have emerged from the Getty’s conservation partnerships, this one didn’t travel far. Unbeknownst to few outside scholarly circles, the Leonardo workshop painting has resided in Los Angeles for about 80 years.

Purchased by Southern California real estate developer Willitts J. Hole, probably in the early 1930s, the painting was bequeathed to UCLA in 1939 and transferred to the Hammer Museum in 1995 after the university took over management and operation of the institution founded by Armand Hammer.

But UCLA’s “Virgin and Child With Saint Anne” has languished in storage much of the time since the 1940s, when it adorned a UCLA library.

“We would like to display it with our other Old Master pictures, but we can’t,” said Cynthia Burlingham, the Hammer’s deputy director of curatorial affairs.

The suite of galleries that displays historical art is restricted to works collected by Armand Hammer, she says, and the remaining exhibition space is devoted to contemporary art.

At the time of Hole’s bequest, his collection was highly regarded. In 1935, The Times featured his “Virgin and Child With Saint Anne” in a Sunday series on “Southern California’s One Hundred Finest Privately Held Paintings.”

But the quality of the works was uneven and some were inaccurately identified, Burlingham says.

“Virgin and Child With Saint Anne” was attributed to Andrea Salai, a pupil of Leonardo. So few of Salai’s works have survived that his authorship cannot be confirmed. But scientists, conservators and curators who have studied both paintings agree that they were probably done around the same time in Leonardo’s studio. The Louvre has dated its painting as being made between 1503 and 1519. The workshop version, a highly finished work in better condition than the Leonardo, is thought to have been made between 1508 and 1513.

In both paintings, St. Anne is seated with her adult daughter on her lap, and Mary reaches down to hold the baby Jesus around the waist as he plays with a lamb. But the barefoot women in the Leonardo wear sandals in the workshop version and there are additional variations in the landscape and drapery.

UCLA’s painting arrived at the Getty in summer 2010, in preparation for the Paris show. Sue Ann Chui, assistant conservator of paintings at the museum, and scientist Alan Phenix of the Getty Conservation Institute conducted an intensive study of the work, including an examination under a microscope and various light sources and an analysis of paint cross-sections, published in the exhibition catalog.

“Looking at the painting under magnification and ultraviolet light tells us about the surface coatings,” Chui said. “Under X-ray, we can see the structure of the painting and get a sense of the paint losses.
“When we compared construction techniques to that of the Leonardo painting, we could tell that they are almost identical,” she says. Although UCLA’s 70-by-45-inch work is about 4 inches taller than the Louvre’s, they are the same width. The backing of each is made of three planks of wood, joined by four pairs of dowels in nearly the same position.

“It’s really rare to have a panel painting that hasn’t been touched,” Chui says. “In this one, there are some repairs done later on, maybe in the 19th century, maybe earlier. But you see original tool marks from the 16th century, these diagonal furrows that go across the entire back. These dove-tailed cross battens are probably original as well,” she says of wood strips that reinforce the panels. “And you see the same features on the back of the Leonardo.”

Phenix says that infrared light revealed changes made while the painting was in process. The unknown artist initially conformed to Leonard’s composition, later adding trees and other foliage that frames the figures.

“The analysis also helps us understand changes that occurred over time,” Phenix says. “What appears brown would have been quite green, a copper-based green that reacts to the binding medium and discolors.”

Before the painting traveled to Paris, Chui cleaned its surface, removed relatively new, discolored varnish, thinned some of the older varnish and touched up paint losses.

After the work returned to the Getty — and Chui had a chance to observe copies of it made between 1635 and 1810, when it was installed in a church in Milan — she retouched folds of the Madonna’s mantle “to make the highlights read more coherently,” she says.

The painting was hung in the gallery where the Getty’s other Italian Renaissance paintings are shown late last month.

“It’s going to make an enormous difference in our gallery,” Scott Schaefer, the Getty’s curator of paintings, says of the visiting artwork.

Burlingham points out that UCLA’s painting hasn’t been completely ignored. The Seattle Art Museum showed it in 1997 in a small Leonardo exhibition and the painting has been published in Burlington magazine, an academic art journal.

“But it has become more interesting for conservators and art historians because it’s not a copy of the Leonardo,” she says. “When the curator at the Louvre contacted us and we had this generous offer from the Getty, it all just came together. “

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