Conservation in Action: Benjamin West, December 2014

Conservation of Devout Men Taking the Body of Saint Stephen, dated 1776, by Benjamin West (American, 1738–1820):
December 2014, Technical examination

The first steps of any conservation project are careful and thorough examination of the artwork and full documentation of its current condition. To aide in the understanding of this altarpiece, conservators complete a comprehensive technical examination. The technical exam provides information about the materials and techniques used to create the altarpiece. It can help conservators discern what has been done to the painting since it was created and give insights into West’s painting practices at the time.

Benjamin West was active for more than six decades, creating hundreds of paintings and working with a number of artists through collaborative training in his home studio. As a result of this wealth of material culture, research into his artistic process is ongoing.

Oral history and written biographical accounts of the artist note that he revisited the altarpiece at least once after it was installed in the church for which it was designed. Conservators also know that the painting has been restored multiple times since it was created, but there is no written documentation of who did the work, when it was completed, or what materials were used.

This technical exam includes a number of different techniques ranging from careful examination of the object with an unaided eye and examination with special light sources to the use of specialized analytical equipment in the MFA’s Scientific Research Lab. Each technique offers a piece of information that, when put together, gives a more robust understanding of the altarpiece and helps guide formulation of the conservation treatment plan.

Please select a link below to learn more about each specific technique.

Ultraviolet Fluorescence
Infrared Reflectography

See next update.