The Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Paintings Conservation Studio oversees the care and conservation of the Museum’s Western paintings collections, encompassing works created in Europe and in the Americas, from the fourteenth century to the present. Paintings conservators hold specialized graduate degrees and must acquire a sophisticated understanding of both material science and art history. Through years of training, conservators develop the refined eye and hand skills necessary to carry out the meticulous work that is at the core of the profession.
A commitment to collaboration characterizes all projects undertaken by paintings conservators at the MFA, where the opportunity to work closely with curators and conservation scientists is essential to being able to truly understand the artworks being examined. Working with colleagues, studio staff routinely engage in technical examinations and conduct research into artists’ materials and techniques. This interdisciplinary approach often yields new information and provides fresh insights into an artist’s original intent. Investigations also frequently involve identifying the materials and techniques used in earlier conservation treatments. Observing how these earlier interventions may have changed the structure and final appearance of the works can both clarify understanding of an artists’ intent and ultimately inform what treatment is possible to best honor that vision.
As museums have grown and evolved over the last century, so has the role of the museum conservator. Beyond core duties of examination and treatment, paintings conservators, in tandem with conservation scientists, are also responsible for setting appropriate environmental standards to best protect and preserve paintings while they are on display in galleries, resting in storage, or traveling to other institutions for special exhibition or loan. When paintings are requested for travel, conservators assess their condition, advise on crate design, and oversee preparations for travel and display to make sure they have the appropriate level of protection. Staff also travel with artworks to ensure proper handling during transit, condition check objects upon arrival, and oversee installation at the exhibition venue.
Conservation of paintings at the MFA was established in 1902 when the artist John Briggs Potter was appointed Keeper of Paintings, one of the first such positions in America, managing display, care, and conservation. The position of Keeper was eventually replaced by two distinct but interconnected areas of expertise: curators responsible for art historical research and display and conservators responsible for the material care of the collections. Today, there is also much focus on bringing the work of conservators to as broad an audience as possible. Paintings conservators constantly look for ways to share the process and discoveries through publishing, giving lectures, holding seminars, and leading gallery talks. Some treatments are performed on view to the public as part of the “Conservation in Action” exhibitions, and an ever-growing slate of online content is available through the MFA’s YouTube channel and social media channels.
Research and examination of a seven-panel Cretan-Venetian altarpiece from the early fifteenth century
Conservation of an altarpiece by American painter Benjamin West and treatment of its frame
Treatment of a large-scale portrait painting by Monet
Cleaning of a monumental painting from the Dutch Golden Age