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Standing upright for the first time in more than a century, Jean-Baptiste Oudry's Rhinoceros (1749) and Lion (1752) from the Staatliches Museum Schwerin, Germany, have reached the end of a five-year conservation treatment at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center.
The paintings, along with nine other life-size portraits of animals by Oudry, are featured in the exhibition Oudry's Painted Menagerie, on view at the Getty Center May 1–September 2, 2007. The exhibition also presents a selection of Oudry's animal drawings and a variety of 18th-century decorative arts.
Beginnings of the Project
Chief paintings conservator Mark Leonard and paintings curator Scott Schaefer first saw Rhinoceros and Lion in 2001 while visiting museums in the former East Germany. Rhinoceros is the largest portrait ever painted of Clara, an Indian rhinoceros that toured Europe for 17 years in the mid-1700s. The two enormous paintings had been in storage at Schwerin for nearly 150 years.
Both paintings had been removed from their original stretchers in the 19th century. Rhinoceros had been carefully rolled, but some damage had occurred at the right edge, which was perhaps the section of the picture on the outside of the roll. Lion had also been rolled after first being folded along its central seam. The roll had been crushed on one side, resulting in numerous losses of paint across the surface. Both pictures were also covered with heavy layers of grime and discolored varnish.
Thanks to support by the Paintings Conservation Council and the Friends of Heritage Preservation, the Getty Museum and the Staatliches Museum Schwerin were able to transport these treasures to the Getty Center for an ambitious conservation partnership. Today, after years of painstaking structural repair, cleaning, and retouching, Lion and Rhinoceros are among the best-preserved examples of Oudry's work.
The Conservation Process
Despite their neglected appearance, the paintings were in remarkably good condition when they were first unrolled. Their surfaces had suffered little abrasion or retouching, and their supports were unlined—no fabric had been added to the reverse sides of the canvases for structural support. This is quite rare for 18th-century paintings, and rarer still for such large pictures.
The canvases had also not been sized, or coated with glue to seal the threads. The canvas fibers therefore remained flexible and fresh, which allowed conservators to preserve the paintings in their resilient, unlined state.
The smaller of the two paintings, Lion, came to the Getty Center first. Leonard and his team set the painting face down to flatten bulges in the canvas, reweave torn threads, and apply temporary structural reinforcements. They then placed the painting upright in a working strainer to study the surface, which was dulled by two layers of yellowed varnish.
By examining cross-sections of the surface under UV light, conservators discovered that the bottom layer could not be removed without abrading paint particles from the surface. They thus decided on a relatively conservative cleaning process: thinning the upper layer of varnish while leaving the bottom, earlier layer intact.
When the 10-by-15-foot Rhinoceros arrived at the Getty Center in 2003, conservators followed the same successful, minimally invasive approach to stabilization and cleaning that they had pioneered with Lion.
Leonard and his team now began a two-year effort to retouch both paintings and restore them to their original appearance. Conservators first built up the areas of bare canvas with gesso putty and covered them with deep red gouache to mimic Oudry's original red priming. They then applied two coats of varnish and began to painstakingly fill in the missing areas, taking particular care with details that would be visible at eye level.
In January 2007, as the project neared completion, Mark Leonard applied the final touches to Rhinoceros in the East Art Information Room in the East Pavilion of the Museum at the Getty Center, where the natural light from above provided ideal conditions for this work. Visitors were able to observe the meticulous retouching process first-hand and Leonard was available to answer questions.
Then, after a final coat of varnish, the painting was restretched onto a traditional wooden stretcher for exhibition in Oudry's Painted Menagerie and its long trip back home to Schwerin.
About Oudry's Exotic Animals
A painter and professor at the Royal Academy under King Louis XV, Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686–1755) was the foremost decorative painter of his day in France and Germany. His highly finished, naturalistic approach won him a reputation as the greatest animal painter of his time.
Lion and Rhinoceros belong to a suite of portraits of exotic animals. Most of these portraits celebrate star specimens of the French king's menagerie at Versailles. Oudry painted the rhinoceros—a famous touring Indian rhinoceros named Clara who inspired a dedicated following throughout Europe in the mid-1700s—in 1749 at the annual Saint-Germain fair in Paris. The Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin purchased the group of paintings from Oudry around 1750 and brought them to his castle at Schwerin in northeast Germany.
Eighteenth-century Europe saw a vogue for exotic animals that paralleled the rise of taxonomy and natural history, which emphasized the importance of direct empirical observation. Empiricism was central to Oudry's artistic philosophy, and his animal portraits were intended as documents of natural history—and as promotion for the French king's collection of exotic animals.
The popularity of natural history was also encouraged by the rise in colonial trade, which fed an avid market for exotic creatures. The Comte de Buffon's 44-volume Histoire Naturelle (Natural History) (1749–1803), which contained an engraving based on Oudry's painting of Clara, was one of the most popular French-language books of the time. Oudry's paintings and Buffon's tomes shared a sympathetic view of animals, projecting human sentiments onto them and evoking their "character." Oudry's animals are elegant, dignified, and noble. They are idealized portraits, much like royal portraiture.
Buffon's and Oudry's widely disseminated images helped to rectify previous representations of creatures that had been drawn either from memory, verbal description, or conjured by the exoticizing fantasy with which 18th-century Europeans often imagined foreign lands.