There are five wonderful, but under-publicized works of art that you don’t want to miss at the J. Paul Getty Museum near Los Angeles.
- Luca di Tomme’s Saint John the Baptist (Italian, late 1300): This painting of John the Baptist is fascinating because it is an important transitional piece between the 2-D art of the Middle Ages and the more 3-D works of the Renaissance. This can be easily observed in Tomme’s handling of John’s face. Additionally, John is portrayed as a very interesting and likable character; he is certainly one of the most endearing individuals from the New Testament. In this painting, he wears a hair shirt that highlights his commitment to an ascetic life of prayer and penance.
- El Greco’s Christ on the Cross (Greek/Spanish, circa 1605): This dark crucifixion scene shows a very isolated Christ atop a hill in a very empty landscape. The artist’s use of dramatic colors and exaggerated proportions conveys the transcendent moment when Christ sublimated his physical pain and commended his spirit to God. This relatively small devotional image certainly encourages spiritual reflection.
- Jusepe de Ribera’s Eucid (Spanish, circa 1630): Ribera’s painting of Eucid, a prominent mathematician from antiquity, depicts an individual exhausted from a life of hardship but imbued with the force of a complex personality. Portraits of ancient intellectuals were very popular in the 1600s, when there was a revival of interest in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Mathematical diagrams in the illegible book reveal the figure’s identity as Eucid.
- Jacob van Ruisdael’s Two Watermills and an Open Sluice (Dutch, 1653): This dark landscape successfully captures the tension between nature’s power and human needs. Ruisdael’s painting frequently have very dramatic (almost ominous) skies. His clouds are always intense. Since I’m a water engineer with an interest in art and history, my infatuation with this painting is probably expected.
- Jean-Francois Millet‘s Man with a Hoe (French, circa 1860): In year’s past, Millet’s paintings (like The Gleaners) of peasants were popular illustrations for Sunday School manuals. As such, for a while, they fell out of favor with art critics. But more recently there has been justifiable renewed interest in his work, as he was a major influence on a young Vincent Van Gogh. At the Paris Salon of 1863, Hoe was assumed to be a social protest about the plight of the French peasants. The man with the hoe is clearly having a bad day and probably a rough life. One can’t help but feel his pain and wonder about the existential (or absurd) nature of his life.
The Getty Museum has a lot of artworks by fairly minor artists, but also has excellent secondary works by important artists. It is definitely worth a visit. The museum and art facility resides on a hillside overlooking L.A. In some respects, the various structures look more like a giant mausoleum than art facility. The collection of buildings represents a very definite form of monumental art. The various gardens in and around the Getty Museum are very beautiful and represent excellent places to relax and contemplate the wonders of the world (and the smog in L.A.).