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For avid museum goers and/or lovers of fine French furniture, the Getty Center in Los Angeles is a real treat. “Getty” City sits on top of a mountain, overlooking the city and the beach. A complex of six buildings, it houses a first-rate decorative and fine arts collection, and also promotes education and research of the arts. Designed by Richard Meyer, architect of Atlanta’s High Museum, the facility uses the same squares of painted aluminum as the Atlanta museum for the exterior skin but adds blocks of cleft-cut, fossilized Italian travertine for parts of the structures. The contrast between the clean, modern aluminum and the rough-textured marble reflects the range of art that is housed inside.

J. Paul Getty initially focused on the areas of antiquities, French furniture and decorative arts, and European paintings. His love of French furniture, specifically Louis XIV, XV and XVI, can be felt in the collection’s quality and passion. But in the last two decades, the holdings have been expanded to include illuminated manuscripts, drawings, European sculpture and photography.

The French portion of the collection is displayed chronologically in a series of fifteen galleries, each reflective on one period. Many galleries have upholstered wall of silk damask in the color, scale and pattern of the period. And four rooms of eighteenth century paneling are also installed in the gallery. One from the Regence period (between Louis XIV and XV, dating 1700-1730) provides a perfect study in the system of French panels.

Indicative of the quality of the French collection are pieces from the most famous artists of the time. For example, a set of ten painted panels is attributed to Charles Le Brun, a painter and the director of fine arts under Louis XIV. The principle interior designer at Versailles, Le Brun later was appointed director and chief artist of the Gobelins tapestry looms after Louis XIV bought the company in 1662. These painted and gilded oak panels would have been part of a paneled room in a chateau or grand Paris hotel. The design reflects the richness and heaviness of the Baroque period, incorporating classical architectural motifs with floral leaf patterns and human figures.

French architecture, furniture and decorative arts enjoyed a resurgence of importance under Louis XIV. With Le Brun’s help, the existing guild system was improved and the title maitre-ebeniste (master cabinetmaker) was created for those furniture makers who had served their apprenticeship, passed the required test and received a royal license to practice.

One such artist was Andre Charles Boulle who invented a form of decoration that bears his name. Boulle work consists of marquetry patterns made from sheets of tortoiseshell and German silver, brass or pewter, and the Getty Center boasts a half-dozen pieces attributed to this famous craftsman. Among them is the pair of coffers on stands, standing five feet tall and just under three feet wide. Used to hold jewelry and other precious objects, the coffers are described in the museum’s Handbook of the Collection as “oak and walnut veneered with tortoiseshell, blue-painted horn, ebony, rosewood, cypress, pewter and brass; gilt-bronze mounts”.

This section of the Getty Collection also houses fine examples of French porcelain, tapestries, silver, wall lights and sculpture. The exhibit describes each piece as to maker, age and materials, but the Handbook of the Collection, for sale at the museum store, serves as a valuable reference guide.

The most remarkable aspect of this facility is that the whole experience is completely free (although you do have to make reservations to park your car), making the appreciation and knowledge of art available to everyone.

*Published in NFocus magazine January 2000.

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