Enfilade

MFA, Boston Displays Newly Acquired Altarpiece by Benjamin West

Posted in museums by Editor on December 26, 2016

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MFA staff members install Benjamin West’s large painting Devout Men Taking the Body of Saint Stephen (1776) in the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Gallery. Fidelity Investments chairman Edward ‘Ned’ Johnson III acquired the painting in 2014 for $2.9million from St. Stephen Walbrook (the export license was issued in March of that year). He donated it, anonymously, to the MFA in 2015 in honor of Malcolm Rogers to celebrate the museum director’s twenty years of leadership. Details and more on Johnson’s collections are available from Beth Healy’s article, “The Quiet Man of Boston’s Art Scene,” in The Boston Globe (22 August 2015).

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From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (via Art Daily), and good timing: it’s St Stephen’s Day! . . .

The recently acquired Devout Men Taking the Body of Saint Stephen (1776) by Benjamin West (1738–1820) is one of the largest paintings in the MFA’s collection—together with its towering frame, it measures more than 18 1/2 feet tall. Over the past two years, the monumental altarpiece was treated in the Conservation in Action studio, where Museum visitors were able to witness the gradual process of cleaning and restoring the work. The painting and its original gilded wood frame, which was also conserved, are now reunited as the dramatic centerpiece of a new installation that explores how 18th-century artworks and artists traveled across both intellectual and geographical borders.

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Thomas Malton (1748–1804), St Stephen Walbrook, London, watercolour over pencil, 26 × 18 inches (London: Lowell Libson LTD). West’s painting is visible at the altar.

West was the first American-born painter to study abroad, second president of the Royal Academy of Arts, and painter to the English king. Devout Men Taking Away the Body of Saint Stephen, among the largest works he ever produced, was commissioned for London’s St. Stephen’s Walbrook, a church designed by Christopher Wren, and showcases West’s profound understanding of Italian Renaissance art. Italy likewise held special allure for well-to-do travelers on the Grand Tour, such as the American couple in John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Izard (1775), painted in Rome. Meanwhile, Italian painters ventured abroad as well—the gallery includes Canaletto’s Bacino di San Marco, Venice (about 1738), a trademark view of his home city, and Capriccio: A Sluice on a River with a Chapel (1754), painted in England, where he spent nine years catering to an enthusiastic clientele. Adding to the rich mix of works by American, English, and Italian painters are sculpture and decorative arts by French and German artists.

The 18th century was a cosmopolitan age. Artists and patrons traveled widely: in pursuit of artistic training or opportunity, political service, or social refinement. And as people moved, so too did ideas, styles, and tastes, in art and beyond. Across Europe (and America), Italy held special allure: artists traveled there to absorb its millennia of artistic traditions, as did well-heeled visitors on the Grand Tour. The fashion for Italian art was especially strong in England, where American-born painter Benjamin West created this towering altarpiece, influenced by his study of Renaissance masters Titian and Raphael. Italian artists also often ventured abroad. Canaletto, famous for his view paintings of his home city of Venice, spent nearly a decade in England, catering to an enthusiastic clientele.

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