Benjamin West

Benjamin West (1738-1820), the first of America's emigré artists, became one of Europe's most important neoclassic painters.

Benjamin West was born on Oct. 10, 1738, in Springfield Township, Pa., to a struggling innkeeper who had emigrated from England. Though the Wests lived among Quakers, who habitually frowned upon art, Benjamin seems to have been encouraged by all about him from the time he began to draw at the age of six years. He gained a reputation in eastern Pennsylvania as a child prodigy. At first he was self-taught, but later, before his departure for Italy in 1759, he knew the paintings of William Williams and Gustavus Hessalius, whose work he soon surpassed.

Among West's American works produced during the 1750s were the Death of Socrates, forecasting his later neoclassic work; a somewhat fantastic Landscape with Cow (1748), revealing his early dreams of storybook castles; and a lustrous portrait of the young Thomas Mifflin. While in Pennsylvania, West aspired to be the companion of emperors and kings. He sought, then, the social opportunities which Europe offered.

Absorbing Neoclassicism

Because of his quaint charm and the remoteness of his origins (in the eyes of the Italians), West interested important patrons, critics, and literati in Rome. Cardinal Albani introduced him to the treasures of the Vatican; and the English painter Gavin Hamilton, the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs, and the esthetician Johann Joachim Winckelmann schooled West in the niceties of neoclassic art, which was then supplanting the more frivolous rococo style. Excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum had fostered the growth of neoclassicism, and partisans of the new nationalisms saw in the glories of the ancient world pretexts for their own ambitions.

When West arrived in London in 1763, he was prepared by temperament and training for the success he would enjoy. He was immediately encouraged by Joshua Reynolds and was deluged by portrait commissions. But he aspired to history painting, which he saw as a higher art form than portraiture. He wished to choose lofty themes, idealize figures, and dramatize scenes according to the principles he had learned in Rome. Robert Hay Drummond, Archbishop of York, commissioned West to paint Agrippina with the Ashes of Germanicus (1767), a story, of faithfulness and self-sacrifice based on a theme from Tacitus. West endowed his figures with a grave dignity, clearly stratified his space in the manner of Nicolas Poussin, and took his composition, in part, from the ancient reliefs of the Ara Pacis in Rome.

Relations with the King

King George III heard of West through Archbishop Drummond and commissioned from West a painting on a theme of nobility, Regulus Leaving Rome (1769). The painter and the King became intimate friends, and not even West's sympathy with the American colonists marred the friendship. The Death of Wolfe (1771), a major painting and one of George's favorites, marked a temporary break with neoclassic formulas. In this scene from the battle of the English and French for Quebec in 1759, West used contemporary costumes rather than Roman togas because the event had not taken place in Europe. To ennoble Wolfe, West showed the general in the attitude of a dying Christ with his lieutenants neatly placed beside him like attendant saints.

In 1788 it was obvious that the King was suffering from madness, and West lost his support. In 1792, upon the death of Joshua Reynolds, West was elected president of the Royal Academy, a position that was made increasingly difficult because of George's capricious behavior. Moreover, West's financial position became precarious, as he had lent large sums of money to the Crown and was unable to recover these. Royal commissions dwindled, then disappeared.

Yet West's reputation had not really suffered, and the public continued to support him. His Christ Healing the Sick (1811), commissioned by the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, was bought by the British Institute for 3, 000 guineas before its completion (the largest sum paid in England up to that time for a contemporary work), and a replica was sent to Philadelphia.

West's Style

West's work has been classified as being in three modes: stately, pathetic, and dread. The stately mode includes classicizing, elevating ancient themes, featuring idealized forms and gravity of demeanor, as in the Agrippina. Christ Healing the Sick, showing milder sentiments and more relaxed figures, falls within the pathetic mode. Subjects stirring the astonishment and awe of the beholder, like Death on the Pale Horse (1802), are in the dread mode.

Death on the Pale Horse, which was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1802, marked a departure from the staidness of neoclassicism and forecast the emotionality of romanticism. The painting was an apocalyptic subject of terror and sublimity. Space, rather than being clearly stratified (as in the stately mode), was here vast and unmeasurable; and color, rather than being applied to neat outlines, was handled in a free, Rubenesque manner.

West died in London on March 11, 1820. He played a fundamental role in the history of American art by encouraging and training the most gifted younger American painters of his time. In spite of his position, he was friendly and helpful to any artist, American or English, who stopped at his studio.

Further Reading on Benjamin West

John Galt, The Life and Studies of Benjamin West (2 vols., 1816-1820), is an amusingly anecdotal biography by a contemporary Scottish novelist and the source for later studies. Also useful is Henry E. Jackson, Benjamin West: His Life and Work (1900). Grose Evans, Benjamin West and the Taste of His Times (1959), groups West's work into the stately, pathetic, and dread modes.

Additional Biography Sources

Alberts, Robert C., Benjamin West: a biography, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

Flexner, James Thomas, America's old masters, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982, 1980.

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