At the Getty, Adam and Eve Come Back to Life

LOS ANGELES — Lucas Cranach the Elder’s oil paintings of Adam and Eve have been through a lot in the some 500 years since he painted them. They have been gnawed on by woodworms, shot, and embroiled in international custody disputes more than once. But for nearly the past three years, the pair has resided at the Getty Center, undergoing much-needed conservation and restoration to return them to their former glory. They were unveiled to the public in January at the opening of Conserving Eden: Cranach’s Adam and Eve from the Norton Simon Museum, which runs at the Getty through April 21, after which they will return to Pasadena’s Norton Simon, where they have long been collection highlights.

Cranach was a court painter for the Electors of Saxony in Wittenberg, Germany, and although a specific patron of “Adam and Eve” (c. 1530) is unknown, he likely painted them for the private residence or religious space of a member of the court. “He’s showing these figures in separate compositions as their own subjects, and not as the wings of an altarpiece,” Anne Woollett, curator of paintings at the Getty, said at a preview of the exhibition on January 22. “There is a very stylish sensibility. That was part of why Cranach was so successful.”

The six-foot-tall paintings depict the Biblical figures each standing on a shallow patch of rocky terrain, their forms set against a deep black background. Eve gazes directly out at us as she strikes an elegant pose emphasized by her alabaster skin and wild tendrils of red hair, while a scruffy Adam quizzically scratches his head and looks back at Eve, who has just handed him an apple. “She’s an idealized type that we see in Cranach’s painting over and over again, especially during 1530s,” explained the Getty Museum’s Senior Conservator of Paintings Ulrich Birkmaier, who led the restoration. “She has these these beautiful elongated, features, almond eyes, and hair like the rays of the sun.”

Birkmaier began by removing layers of varnish that had dulled the colors and flattened the images over the years. He then enlisted the help of George Bisacca, conservator emeritus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and José de la Fuente, conservator of panel paintings at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, both of whom specialize in restoring wooden supports.

Bisacca and de la Fuente were tasked with addressing not only the natural changes to the wood but also structural damage resulting from previous restorations. Each panel is composed of seven narrow planks of limewood, and cradles had previously been installed to keep them flat — but they ultimately had the opposite effect, instead restricting the planks’ natural movement and causing them to warp. Earlier attempts to realign the planks involved sanding them down, which caused further damage. In addition, they had sustained water damage and suffered from woodworm infestation. The conservators replaced old inserts and used a router to carefully trace cracks in the wood, which they then filled with specially fitted strips of basswood before adding new strainers that allow the panels to move naturally.

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Ulrich Birkmaier conserving the Norton Simon Museum’s “Adam and Eve” by Lucas Cranach the Elder in Getty Museum’s conservation studio (© J. Paul Getty Trust) Credit: Cassia Davis

Then there is the question of bullet holes in the Eve panel, just one chapter of the paintings’ tumultuous 20th-century saga, which is chronicled in the exhibition’s wall text. In 1929, they were taken from a museum in Kyiv by the Soviet government and brought to Leningrad. Two years later, they were auctioned off to Jewish Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, who died in 1940 while fleeing the Nazi regime, after which the paintings were loaded onto a train of looted art bound for Nazi leader Hermann Göring’s country estate; reportedly, bullets from Allied troops who were shooting at the locomotive left holes in the painting of Eve. They were seized by the Allies at the end of the war and returned to the Netherlands.

In 1961, an exiled Russian aristocrat, George Stroganoff Scherbatoff, claimed that the paintings were owned by his family before being snatched by the Soviets, and the Dutch Government subsequently sold them to him in 1966 for 60,000 guilders. In the early 1970s, Stroganoff Scherbatoff sold them to Norton Simon for $800,000. What the Getty exhibition’s chronology leaves out is the suit brought by Goudstikker’s daughter-in-law Marei von Saher in 2007 claiming rightful ownership of the works, which was ultimately dismissed by a US District Court in 2016, confirming the Norton Simon’s legal ownership of “Adam and Eve.” Although holes in the Eve panel resemble those possibly made by gunfire, there is no definitive consensus.

“It’s a possibility, but there’s no hard proof,” Birkmaier said during the preview. He added that the possible bullet holes were a small component of the total damage, and were addressed as part of the overall restoration.

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A segment of “Adam” where a portion of the forehead and hairline was removed and replaced (image courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum) Credit: Cassia Davis

After the structural restoration was complete, Birkmaier faced the painstaking task of “inpainting,” or filling in areas of missing paint. Fortunately, Cranach painted over 50 representations of Adam and Eve, and a pair at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, bears a marked similarity to the one at the Norton Simon.

“When you hold up Adam’s head [in the Uffizi version] next to the Norton Simon head, it becomes evident that they’re very close, possibly done from the same cartoon or model,” Birkmaier said. “I basically copied the hair from the Uffizi version. I didn’t have to interpret anything … just matching what I see right next to the loss, and magically, the image appears again.”

Instead of trying to recreate the same oil paints that Cranach used, contemporary conservators use synthetic binders mixed with pigment, allowing their work to be easily undone in future restorations. “Our conservation will deteriorate at some point as well, and it will be necessary to take off my restoration,” Birkmaier explained. “Conservators in say 100 years will be able to do that very very easily, without harming the original paint.”

Hanging in newly constructed frames, surrounded by fitting period works of Renaissance portraiture by the likes of Titian, Pontormo, Parmigianino, and Bronzino, Cranach’s “Adam and Eve” has a renewed vibrancy and intensity. Some signs of wear such as cracks in the paint have been intentionally preserved, according to Birkmaier.

“There’s a temptation to go too far with retouching, but you have to stop yourself because you don’t want to turn it into an artifact,” he said. “You still want to be able to see that these are living works of art. They’re 500 years old, so they should show their age.”

Detail of Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Eve” (c. 1530), oil on panel (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)
Detail of Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Eve” (c. 1530), oil on panel (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)
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Birkmaier holds up a sample of the custom-cut wedges that have been inserted into the panels. (image courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum) Credit: Cassia Davis
Ulrich Birkmaier points to a photograph of pre-restoration “Adam” at the Getty Museum. (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)

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