The Miracle of the Quails, executed in 1554, is among the artist’s largest and most ambitious works. It was previously in a private collection and had rarely been seen by scholars and has never been on public display.
It was acquired by the Getty from New York dealership OMP Fine Art. When asked about the purchase price, a spokesperson of the museum said: “We never discuss purchase price as a matter of policy.”
Major works by the artist are rarely available. The auction record for Bassano stands at $7.8m (£4.7m) for The Adoration of the Shepherds that sold at Christie's New York in 2014, although that picture was under half the size of the Getty’s latest acquisition.
Director of the museum Timothy Potts said: “The Miracle of the Quails is an exceptional example of Bassano’s distinctive artistic style and his juxtaposing of historical subjects with everyday people in a state of poverty.
“With its grand scale, this striking and daring painting will become a centrepiece of our 16th-century northern Italian paintings gallery, alongside works by Titian, Veronese, Savoldo, Lotto, and Dosso Dossi.”
The subject of the painting is rare. It relates to an Old Testament story from the books of Exodus and Numbers where, as Moses leads his people out of Egypt and into the desert, birds miraculously fall from the sky to give much needed food to the Israelites.
The painting shows a scene outside the Israelite’s camp as people gather up the quails although Bassano used a depiction of the local landscape around his hometown in Northern Italy for the background.
The painting, which measures 7ft 8in (2.34m) wide, was almost certainly conceived as a pendant of another monumental work by Bassano, Lazarus and the Rich Man, which is now at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The two paintings were very likely commissioned by the same patron, Domenico Priuli, in 1551.
The acquisition will add to a rare portrait and a drawing, Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple, in terms of works by Bassano held by the Getty.
The Miracle of the Quails will on view from early November in the Getty Museum’s North Pavilion galleries, hanging near to paintings by Titian, Veronese and other Venetian artists.