On November 16, 1940, J. Paul Getty picked up his tourist card and pesos at the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles, said goodbye to some friends, and drove to Whittier to pick up his travel companion and cousin, Hal Seymour. In his diary, he wrote: “drove thru [sic] a beautiful, moonlit night to Indio where we spent the night. Arr[ived] 12:15 AM. 140 miles.”
As he did nearly every day of his adult life, Getty documented his trip to Mexico in a small, nondescript notebook with brief sentences about meetings and places visited, for both business and leisure.
From November 1940 to March 1941, Getty was vacationing in Mexico and wrote about going to the beach, meeting for lunches, attending piano concerts, and sightseeing. He also met a German artist, Armando Drechsler, who would paint Getty’s portrait.
Dreschler had been living in Mexico City since the mid-1920s. Although Getty never mentions the artist by name, he recorded sitting for his portrait on January 18, 20, 21, 22, and 23. He only wrote “sat for my portrait,” between notes about business, phone calls, parties, movies, and who he ran into at the Ritz. (You can see the full diary here.)
Drechsler is mostly known for colorful paintings he made for corporate calendars of women in indigenous and postcolonial Mexican dress. He also painted Mexican elites and politicians like President Plutarco Elias Calles, President Lázaro Cárdenas, and President Miguel Alemán Valdéz, several of whom Getty also records meeting in his diaries. It is possible that through these circles Getty was introduced to Drechsler.
Drechsler portrays Getty as a serious and goal-oriented man, with his sights out of frame and aloof to the viewer, but comfortable in his trappings of success and luxury—the refined, red upholstered chair and his blue suit. Getty must have appreciated this portrayal as there are records of it hanging in his home in Los Angeles.
An earlier portrait
In a very different portrait completed just two years before this trip to Mexico, Getty commissioned notable British society portraitist Gerald Brockhurst.
Brockhurst was a well-known name of his time, painting the likes of actress Marlene Dietrich, Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, and heiress Sarah Mellon. Both Dreschler and Brockhurst were around the same age as Getty and socialized with prominent political and public figures, probably adding to their appeal for Getty.
By this point in his life, in 1938, Getty had consolidated his eight affiliated companies valued at $35 million and bought the Pierre Hotel in New York. Getty sat for this portrait in Brockhurst’s London studio in July at the start of his annual trip to Europe, where he would travel until October, making his first significant purchases that put his art collection on the map. Getty bought Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of the founder of Christie’s auction house, James Christie, that same summer with the advice of Brockhurst.
In this portrait, the forty-five-year-old businessman wears a broad-shouldered suit and stares at the viewer, arms at his side, locked in a grim standoff. It’s a formal, confrontational reading of the man, different from Drechsler’s composed, relaxed, more contemplative Getty a few years later.
Researching Portraits of Getty
In the book Collector’s Choice: The Chronicle of an Artistic Odyssey through Europe, Getty’s longtime friend, Ethel LeVane, recounts that Getty once promised to give each of his five sons a painting or other type of image of himself. LeVane writes that while considering commissioning a sculptor to create a bust of him, Getty remarked, “To date, I’ve been painted twice. I’m wondering if a bronze would be acceptable to my family?” This may refer to the two painted portraits discussed above.
Today, the Getty Museum has four other portraits of its founder: two slightly different paintings created by Japanese artist Shinjiro Nakamura from about 1955–1960; another portrait signed “Peral 1965”; and one by American artist Robert Oliver Skemp from around 1970.
While these portraits were all created relatively recently, we still have many questions about them, as they were not as well documented as the rest of Getty’s art collection.
After a year of research into the portraits, the only ones we can definitively say that Getty commissioned are the ones by Brockhurst and Drechsler, because we have his diary entries and correspondence about them. The Nakamura pair seems likely to have been commissioned as well because there are two versions with slight adjustments, as if responding to Getty’s preferences. These portraits are also noted in Getty’s ledger as being acquired in 1965, whereas Skemp and Peral are not.
For the Skemp portrait, it seems likely that the Getty Oil Company commissioned the artist to create a portrait based on a photo. When the oil company was bought out in 1984, they sent this portrait to the Getty Museum without documentation about how they acquired the work. However, an entry for the artist in Who’s Who in American Art lists this commission as belonging to “Getty Oil Corp, Delaware City, Del. ‘78,” supporting this theory.
Skemp sometimes made portraits from photos, and an image held in the Getty’s Institutional Archives is a pretty close match to Skemp’s portrait: note the same spotted tie, similar lighting, and identical posing of the hands.
Finally, the artist who signed his name “Peral” remains the biggest mystery. Despite looking for artists who went by this name and finding some promising results, there isn’t a definitive answer to how this piece was made. The artist may have been commissioned or may have just made a portrait from a photo and sent the painting to the museum in its early days.
Of course, this kind of research is always an ongoing process, especially as more materials become digitized and available online. Finding new evidence, like dates in diaries and references in publications, helps us build a better picture of the artist, the artwork itself, and in this case, the patron, J. Paul Getty. If readers have additional information to share with us about any of these portraits, we warmly welcome your input in the comments.