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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We usually think of a great work of art as the vision of an individual artist. An exhibition at the Getty Museum here in Los Angeles is all about the close partnership of two great 17th century painters.

Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder collaborated on about two-dozen works. As NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, a recent scientific study has shed new light on how that partnership worked.

INA JAFFE reporting:

Rubens and Brueghel were friends and neighbors in the city of Antwerp. It's not all that amazing that they worked together, says the Getty's Associate Curator of Paintings Anne Woollett. In 17th century Antwerp, she says, it was actually pretty common for painters to collaborate.

Ms. ANNE WOOLLETT (Associate Curator of Paintings, Getty Museum): It seems to have been the result of a very solid art market in Antwerp, which allowed artists to specialize in landscapes, for example. And where it seems to make sense to work with another individual to produce a single painting. So a figure specialist working with a landscape specialist.

JAFFE: A sort of assembly line operation, usually with one painter giving the orders. Many art historians believe that Rubens played that role in his relationship with Brueghel. But Woollett says that the Getty wanted to show that their partnership was more creative than that.

X-ray and infrared studies of the paintings let the curators travel back in time. The piece that was examined the most is the one the Getty owns, Mars Disarmed by Venus.

Ms. WOOLLETT: This very large panel started out in Brueghel's studio, and there is what we call under-drawing. There's a figure in the position where we see Venus today, a slightly smaller figure.

JAFFE: But the Venus we see now was painted by Rubens, apparently blotting out Brueghel's figure and some of his complex arrangement of armor and weapons. This Venus is all opulent, pearly flesh. She leans against Mars - also by Rubens - who's dressed for battle.

Venus removes his helmet in what is clearly just her first move. But these figures were only stage two of this work, says Tiarna Doherty, the associate conservator of paintings.

Ms. TIARNA DOHERTY (Associate Conservator of Paintings, Getty Museum): In stage three, Brueghel comes back and he helps reintegrate, if you will, the figures with the setting.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

JAFFE: The Getty keeps its time machines in a small, dark, lead-lined room in the conservation studio. The X-ray unit hangs from the high ceiling.

Ms. DOHERTY: And that's important because for a very large painting we would lie it on the floor and lay X-ray film behind it so that one can in one exposure take an X-ray of the whole painting.

JAFFE: The X-ray of Mars Disarmed by Venus confirmed that Rubens had painted over some of Brueghel's completed work, since Brueghel's finishing highlights used lead-based white paint, which shows up great on an X-ray. This room also contains the infrared camera.

Ms. DOHERTY: This is a camera that's actually been adapted from military use.

JAFFE: But when turned on a picture, it reveals the order in which layers of paint were applied. The infrared study showed that the original plans from Mars Disarmed by Venus were done by Brueghel, or so says Tiarna Doherty, because to the untrained eye, the infrared images looks like a blurry black and white of the original. But the experts, she says, see it differently.

Ms. DOHERTY: It's sort of like the process of a doctor looking at our own X-rays. The doctor knows what they're looking at.

JAFFE: The scientific studies are now on public display in a museum. Curator Anne Woollett says they answer a lot of questions about how Rubens and Brueghel worked together.

Ms. WOOLLETT: It turns on its head the notion that Rubens was the one who directed most of his partnerships. His partnership with Brueghel was partnership of equals. They had a very reciprocal, sensitive relationship where they responded to one another's contributions.

JAFFE: The exhibition continues at the Getty until September 24. It then travels to the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

MONTAGNE: See The Head of Medusa and The Garden of Eden, plus more, at npr.org.

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