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 enigmatic individuals from the New Testament. In this painting, he wears a hair shirt that emphasizes 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 wreathing Christ atop a lonely hill. The artist’s use of high-contrast colors and elongated proportions (an El Greco trademark) captures the transcendent moment when Christ is about to overcome his physical pain and commended his spirit to His Father. This relatively small spiritual image certainly encourages introspection.
- Jusepe de Ribera’s Eucid (Spanish, circa 1630): Ribera’s painting of Eucid, a prominent mathematician from antiquity, depicts an individual exhausted from life’s hardship but imbued with the intensity of a complex personality. Portraits of ancient scholars and writers 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 identify the figure as Eucid.
- Jacob van Ruisdael’s Two Watermills and an Open Sluice (Dutch, 1653): This dark landscape successfully integrates the tension between nature’s power (water rushing over the open sluice; threatening clouds) and humanity’s needs (a gristmill for grinding grains). Ruisdael’s paintings of windmills and watermills have a very dramatic feel; his clouds are always intense. Since I’m a water engineer with an interest in art and history, my liking for this painting is probably anticipated.
- 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 memorable secondary works by important artists. It is definitely worth a visit. The museum and art facilities resides on a hillside overlooking L.A. In some respects, the various structures look more like a giant mausoleum than art center. 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 are excellent places to relax and contemplate the wonders of the world (and the smog in L.A.).