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Norton Simon's Zurbaran gets a face-lift

December 22, 2008 |  5:30 am


"Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose" is back at the Norton Simon Museum after a revealing conservation job. But you'd better be quick if you want to see its new look before the 1633 painting by Francisco de Zurbaran takes a trip to New York.

A crown jewel of the Simon collection and one of the finest Spanish still lifes in the United States, the painting recently got some expert TLC at the J. Paul Getty Museum's conservation laboratory. Like an aging beauty queen who quietly retreats, then slips back into the public eye looking younger, the 375-year-old artwork has returned to the Pasadena museum refreshed and ready for close-up viewing. It will be displayed there until late January, when the Zurbaran and four other Simon pictures will go to the Frick Collection for an exhibition Feb. 10 through May 10, 2009.

"The painting was buried under many layers of varnish and very discolored," says Mark Leonard, head of paintings conservation at the Getty, who spent a couple of weeks studying and cleaning the Zurbaran, removing paint applied by restorers long ago and filling in lost flakes of pigment. "With each successive revarnishing, corrections were made of existing retouches," he says. "When you do that, the retouched areas grow. What starts out as a tiny hole becomes a big blob. That, combined with the general discoloration of the surface, was really suffocating the picture."

The delicate process of removing old varnish and restorers' patches transformed the oil-on-canvas artwork, effectively lifting a veil that had gradually obscured the original. The cleaning also produced some surprises, Leonard says. Long after the 24½-by-43 1/8-inch painting left Zurbaran's studio, diamond-shaped inlays on the table were obliterated and its top was extended, eliminating the back corner on the right side. As the varnish darkened, the base of the table top disappeared, making it look like a shelf or ledge.   

Mark_leonardThe simple, dark wood table is one of the artist's favorite props. In the Simon picture, it is merely the underpinning of the primary components — a plate of lemons, a basket of oranges and a cup and saucer adorned with a rose. But changes made to the original version are significant.

"Losing a corner is pretty critical," Leonard says. "It's a very subtle way of containing the objects on the top of the table."

In another discovery, he found that a restorer had toned the oranges and lemons to heighten their color. "That was probably necessitated by the grayness of the varnish and the fact that the fruits were becoming less distinguishable," he says. "But now that the varnish is off, not only do they have a clarity that they were lacking before, they have a texture that mimics the rough texture of lemon and orange skins."

Norton Simon, the industrialist and collector who founded the museum that bears his name, bought the Zurbaran from heirs of Alessandro Contini Bonacossi, a prominent Italian collector and dealer, in 1972 for $2.75 million. Carol Togneri, chief curator at the Simon, says museum records indicate that the painting has not been fully cleaned or treated by a conservator for at least 100 years.

Because the museum does not have an in-house conservator, its curators often consult Getty colleagues about the health and welfare of works in the Simon collection. The Zurbaran has been on a watch list for years, Togneri says. As problems became more apparent and the Frick exhibition drew closer, the time finally came to give the painting some hands-on attention.

— Suzanne Muchnic

Photo credits: Norton Simon Foundation and J. Paul Getty Museum