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Renaissance Paintings Reunited - 2002-12-29

An art exhibition is bringing together three Renaissance paintings that experts believe were created as a set but were separated for centuries. Detective work by conservators at the J. Paul Getty Museum has helped unravel a mystery surrounding the paintings.

The three works are by the Italian artist Orazio Gentileschi, and were commissioned by the Genoese nobleman Giovan Antonio Sauli.

The paintings are large 1.5 meters by nearly two meters, and all three relate to women, examining their relationship to God.

One work, drawn from classical myth, shows Danae, the daughter of King Akrisius of the Greek city of Argos. According to the story, Danae's father imprisoned her, terrified by a prophecy that his grandson would one day kill him.

Danae was nevertheless impregnated by Zeus, the king of the gods, who entered her room in the form of a shower of gold. The princess gave birth to the hero Perseus, who later fulfilled the prophecy when he accidentally killed the king while throwing a discus.

The second and third paintings deal with themes from the Bible - one with Mary Magdalene, the penitent sinner of the gospel; the other concerns Lot, who escapes the doomed city of Sodom with his two daughters.

Curator Dawson Carr of the J. Paul Getty Museum said the paintings were created as a set to invite comparison. "People would sit around obviously, they didn't have television at this point, and would sit around and discuss these, discuss how they connected. And that's what we were trying to set up here; we were trying to get people to really consider their interaction," Mr. Carr said.

The curator said the three paintings stayed in the Sauli palace for 150 years, well into the 18th century. "And then, toward the end of the 18th century, a writer comes to the Sauli palace in Genoa looking for them. They were all three already known and published as being together. And he can't find the Lot (painting)," Mr. Carr said.

Which means the painting of Lot and his daughters had probably been sold.

But where was it found after more than two centuries? Some believe in the National Gallery of Canada, which has one of several paintings of Lot and his daughters by Gentileschi. Others say in Berlin or other locations where similar works by the painter survive.

But when Getty Museum officials acquired their version of the painting from a private collector, they undertook some detective work and learned that the painting's lower corners had been reconstructed. The same restoration was found on the paintings of Danae and Mary Magdalene, said Getty conservator Mark Leonard, suggesting that the three paintings were once displayed together.

"They clearly hung together at one point and they either were set into an architectural scheme that had truncated corners or a framing scheme where the corners were cut off," Mr. Leonard said.

In addition to the cut corners, conservation scientists found another clue when they x-rayed the picture. "We discovered an entirely different composition underneath the surface, where the figures were placed in different poses, their hands were making slightly different gestures, their faces were turned in slightly different directions," Mr. Leonard said.

Because the final version resembles later paintings of Lot and his daughters by Gentileschi, the Getty experts believe they had found the original work in which the artist struggled to find the right composition.

The museum officials say that after two centuries, the paintings of Lot and his daughters, of Danae, and Mary Magdalene have been reunited, inspiring visitors to the museum as they once inspired visitors to the Sauli family palace.

Orazio Gentileschi ended his long career in London as court painter to King Charles I. He is also remembered as the father and teacher of Artemisia Gentileschi, the most famous woman artist of her day.

(All artwork images provided courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust)