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Getty Foundation announces grant to conserve iconic masterpieces by Caravaggio and Rubens
Michelangelo Merisi, gen. Caravaggio, David mit dem Haupt des Goliath, 1600/01. Photo: Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Getty Foundation in Los Angeles is awarding a grant of €300,000 (roughly $416,000 US) to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (KHM) for the conservation of two great masterpieces by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Peter Paul Rubens. The KHM grant will be one of the last training grants of the Foundation’s successful Panel Paintings Initiative, through which the next generation of paintings conservators is being trained in the complexities of conserving works of art painted on wood panels.

“The conservation of these two spectacular paintings in Vienna provides a fascinating learning opportunity for all of the conservators involved in the project. When the last major training grants are completed in late 2016, the Panel Paintings Initiative will have succeeded in reaching its goals, ensuring that the next generation of conservators is in place to provide quality care for panel paintings in major European and North American collections,” said Deborah Marrow, Director of the Getty Foundation. “The Initiative’s success is the result of a joint effort by all of the expert conservators involved, who have been extremely generous in sharing their time and knowledge.”

Sabine Haag, General Director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, added "I am an advocate of publicizing scholarship, science and research in the context of the museum's ongoing international collaborations and interconnected projects, of informing the general public about these important aspects of museum work. Our collaboration with the Getty Foundation has allowed us to expand the Kunsthistorisches Museum as a center of competence and training for panel conservation. I am extremely happy that we will continue this successful collaboration and that this long-term cooperation ensures the optimum examination and conservation of two icons of art history."

The two KHM paintings – Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath (ca. 1600) and Rubens’ Stormy Landscape (ca. 1625) – are both iconic masterpieces representing the height of Baroque painting.

Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath is one of only two existing paintings by the artist on wood panel. A beautiful and emotionally evocative work, this panel is in critically fragile condition, the result of past conservation interventions that shaved the wood support to only a few millimeters in thickness, nearly as thin as paper. The project will require the removal of the existing rigid cradle - a latticed wooden structure attached to the back of the panel intended to prevent warping. Following the cradle’s removal, the panels must rest to resume their natural shape before the conservators can determine the next steps, which will include the construction of a new flexible support and the repair of multiple fractures that threaten the integrity of the paint layers.

Rubens’ Stormy Landscape is a powerful representation of the natural world, setting the course for the future development of landscape painting. The work is among the greatest dramatic landscapes by Rubens, who created it for his own personal collection. It is one of two large landscapes painted by the artist in this period that feature scenes from classical literature, in this case, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses . (Small figures on the right side of the painting indicate it is the story of Philemon and Baucis being rescued from the storm by the gods Jupiter and Mercury.) The painting is structurally complex and was cobbled together from ten different pieces of wood. Because each plank has aged differently, the panel presents some unique conservation challenges. The separations between the pieces are now visible to the naked eye.

Old master paintings on wooden supports, or panels, are among the most significant works of art in American and European museum collections. Years of practice are required for a panel paintings conservator to develop the surgical skills required for intervention, including a deep knowledge of painting conservation techniques and exceptional woodworking expertise. With only a handful of experts fully qualified to conserve these paintings, and nearly all of them set to retire within the next decade, the Getty Foundation, Getty Conservation Institute, and J. Paul Getty Museum together launched the Panel Paintings Initiative in 2009 to ensure that the next generation of conservators would be prepared to take their place. Since then, the Foundation has identified and supported a number of projects designed to achieve this goal.

The Initiative already has achieved a concentrated but significant impact on the field, so far providing more than 20 conservators intensive training and hands-on experience in panel paintings conservation. In addition, hundreds of other conservators and students have benefitted from the workshops that have been offered, university courses that have resulted, or translations of key works on panel painting conservation that have been disseminated.

One of the key goals of the initiative was to increase knowledge among conservators in Central and Eastern Europe. The project in Vienna will support training for five conservators in from Crakow, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna. Two of these individuals hold teaching positions at conservation schools in their respective countries, which will extend the reach of training activities as they incorporate their newly acquired knowledge into their courses.

Experts at KHM will oversee the project, and structural treatment will be undertaken by two of the world’s foremost panel paintings conservators, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s George Bisacca and the Museo Nacional del Prado’s José de la Fuente. Also consulting on the project will be two leading experts and active trainers on the Panel Paintings Initiative: retired Opificio delle Pietre Dure conservator Ciro Castelli and Ebury Street conservator Ray Marchant. The project was developed in consultation with the initiative’s lead trainers and with members of the Panel Paintings Initiative advisory committee, which includes experts from Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, the UK, and the United States.

Although this is one of the last major training grants of the initiative, a number of the current projects remain active and will continue to yield interesting results over the next two to three years.

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