Forbidden fruit… at the Getty

Detail of the painted reflection of a pupil in Adam. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum

Trouble in paradise

“Conserving Eden” The First Couple gets a makeover

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Soon they’ll be expelled from the Getty in Los Angeles… but only to return to their permanent home at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) was a leading German Renaissance painter who created portraits of Adam and Eve at that crucial moment when Eve was about to lift an apple to her lips. And we all know what happened after that.

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s paintings of Adam and Eve sit on easels in the Getty’s paintings conservation studio. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum

Cranach painted about 50 versions of this scene, with slight variations. The one that’s been at the Norton Simon since 1971, and which dates to about 1530, is said to be among the standouts, along with its sibling at the Uffizi in Florence. In the latter picture, Eve seems to be offering the apple to Adam to have the first bite.

Anything that’s been around for half a millennium tends to get banged around a little, and Norton Simon’s twin panels were in need of an overhaul. So they were taken to the Getty’s conservation department, where they spent two and a half years, and given a thorough cleaning before being put on display last month in the Getty Museum’s North Pavilion, where they’ll be on view through April 21 before going home to Pasadena.

When we stand in front of them now, it’s like looking at something both new and old at the same time. They are, in short, resplendent.

Senior conservator of paintings Ulrich Birkmaier said that he learned something new about the pictures each day. He was assisted by George Bisacca, conservator emeritus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and José de la Fuente, conservator of panel paintings at the Prado in Madrid.

Ulrich Birkmaier holds up a sample of the custom-cut wedges that have been inserted into the panels. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum

The latter two men focused on the wood paneling. Each picture was painted on seven slats or panels of limewood, and not on canvas, because canvas as a preferred surface material was still coming into its own. The wood panels, which are thin, required some structural support, and custom-cut wedges were also inserted for further stability.

Detail of Adam’s foot during cleaning, with old insert from prior restoration. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum

The paintings now look very close to how they did when first completed, but to accomplish this layers of yellowed varnish had to be carefully removed. There were also abrasions from earlier conservation treatments as well as paint loss. The integrity of such works always remains a priority, and paint is only filled in where necessary to bring the picture to as close to its former state as possible. For example, the First Couple’s toes were in bad shape, perhaps from water damage. Now they can dance again.

Family portrait: The Getty’s senior conservator of paintings Ulrich Birkmaier, left, with Bondo Wyszpolski and their shared ancestors. Photo by Debbie Giese

One reason for the pair’s luminosity is that paint on wood panels doesn’t sink into them the way it does with canvas. Birkmaier also made little discoveries, such as the figures of Adam and Eve having been painted first, and the black background then added afterwards.

Now, what about the scene itself?

The figures were pretty much lifesize, which means that they were several inches shorter than most people today. Where the works were originally hung is not known, but presumably in a large space. Because of where the tree is behind them, Adam would always have been on the left and Eve on the right, and they never could have been more than inches apart.

Adam seems to be scratching his head as he checks out Eve. Is he asking himself what Eve is going to do with the apple she holds in her hand, or does he have lice in his scalp? The serpent is in the branch just above Eve, having already enticed her to pick the forbidden fruit. However, she seems to have her mind elsewhere. But let’s not overly psychoanalyze what she’s thinking.

A segment of Adam where a portion of his forehead and hairline was removed and replaced. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum

One thing that the thorough cleaning brought out is that Adam has a darker complexion, as if he’s been out in the sun, putting shingles on the roof or clearing the gutter of leaves while she’s stayed indoors knitting. And if you’re thinking, “Don’t be silly; they didn’t live in a house,” look carefully at what’s reflected in their pupils and you’ll see the crossbars of a four-paned window. That’s an anomaly that matches the fact that they have belly buttons.

There’s also something a bit smug in Eve’s demeanor. It’s actually been suggested that Cranach’s Adam could be a self-portrait while his “white-washed Eve” might be his creation, his own work of art, sort of like Pigmalion and Galatea. Afterall, Pigmalion’s goal was to create the ideal woman, and isn’t that what Eve’s supposed to be?

The Norton Simon Museum’s nearly fully-restored Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder in the Getty Museum’s conservation studio. © J. Paul Getty Trust

As for those ubiquitous fig leaves that conceal their privates, weren’t they only applied AFTER Eve munched on the apple? In what was truly a “peaceable kingdom” they thought nothing of their nudity before then. And didn’t the other animals think this rather strange? “We’re not eating any apples,” they probably said to one another. “See those two bipeds? They’re nuts.”

Which may be one reason why we don’t see leopards and penguins and polar bears wearing pants.

Conserving Eden, curated by Anne T. Woollett, is on display through April 21 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Brentwood. Hours, Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (open until 8 p.m. on Saturday). Parking, $25, or $15 after 3 p.m. (310) 440-7300 or getty.edu/visit. ER

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