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  Benjamin West (1738–1820), self-portrait, c.1776 Benjamin West (1738–1820), self-portrait, c.1776
West, Benjamin (1738–1820), history painter, was born on 10 October 1738 in Springfield (now Swarthmore), Pennsylvania, the tenth and youngest child of John West (1690–1776), innkeeper, and his second wife, Sarah (1697–1756), daughter of Thomas Pearson of Marple, Pennsylvania. Both parents came from Quaker families. An important source of biographical information on West is John Galt's The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West, Esq., President of the Royal Academy of London published in two volumes in 1816 and 1820. Although West himself read and approved the first volume in manuscript form, the two volumes are full of improbable tales that serve to glorify the artist as a self-taught genius. Perhaps the most quoted myth from Galt is that the local Indians showed West how to make his first colours from wild berries and the young artist plucked hairs from his cat's tail to make his first paintbrush. Yet from a young age West seems to have had an unwavering belief in his own ability and a sense that he was predestined for fame. Both his early artistic training and his basic schooling were, however, quite limited and, while he advanced as an artist with his mother's encouragement, he was always, even in old age, awkward in verbal and written expression.

America, 1747–1760

In Philadelphia about 1747, West met the young English artist William Williams (1727–1791), who impressed him with his pictures and lent him his first books on art, by Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy and Jonathan Richardson. West also received some instruction in painting, as he mentioned years later to the painter and diarist Joseph Farington, from a ‘Mr. Hide’, a German artist who was probably John Valentine Haidt, a substitute preacher in Philadelphia in 1754–5 (Farington, Diary, 2.88).

Among West's earliest documented works are two oil on panel overmantels, Storm at Sea and Landscape with Cow (c.1752–3; Pennsylvania Hospital, Philadelphia), and a pair of small portraits, Robert Morris and Jane Morris (both c.1752; Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, Pennsylvania). Although the first two, particularly the second, appear to be based on lost engravings, these works as a group are probably influenced by Williams's lost early paintings.

While in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to paint portraits, West accepted a commission from a gunsmith, William Henry, to create his first history picture, the Death of Socrates (priv. coll.). Henry proposed the subject, read the story to West, and urged him to be ambitious enough to attempt a multi-figured composition. Although partly based on the engraved illustration to Henry's text, Charles Rollin's Ancient History, West's version of about 1756 is more powerfully expressive than the engraving and sufficiently impressed a Philadelphia visitor, the Revd William Smith, that he offered to give West the rudiments of a classical education tailored for an artist. Thus in summer 1756 West moved to Philadelphia to live with his sister and brother-in-law and become a protégé of Smith, a young Anglican minister, classical scholar, and cultural leader in the position of provost at the new College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). West continued to paint portraits, such as Thomas Mifflin (c.1758–9; Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia), now under the influence of the itinerant English artist John Wollaston, and perhaps under Smith's tutelage, West tried to earn enough money to study in Italy. He spent some time painting portraits for this purpose in New York. Then Provost Smith arranged for him to take passage on a merchant ship bound for Leghorn on 12 April 1760.

Italy, 1760–1763

West's trip to Italy, originally intended to be short, was extended to three years when he was advanced funds by wealthy Philadelphians in exchange for copies after old master works. From Leghorn, West travelled on to Rome and there met the artists and connoisseurs (including Anton Raphael Mengs, Gavin Hamilton, and Cardinal Albani) at the centre of the emerging neo-classical movement. As the first American artist ever to have travelled to Italy, he was welcomed as no less than a phenomenon. The cognoscenti, he recalled to Galt, accompanied him to the Vatican to see how he would react to the Apollo Belvedere (Vatican Museum, Rome), considered an ancient Greek original and the most perfect male figure in sculpture. At his first sight of it West pleased them all by exclaiming, ‘how like it is to a young Mohawk warrior’ (Galt, 105). As Mengs advised, he copied antique sculptures and then toured northern Italy, learning by copying old master paintings (especially those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) before beginning a commission for a small history picture. In Venice, in 1762, he had met Richard Dalton, librarian to George III, who was on a buying tour for the king and offered him a royal commission for a painting of the lovers Cymon and Iphigenia (1763). The finished work was much admired in Rome. With the encouragement of Dalton and other English friends in Italy, West decided in 1763 to visit London, via Paris, in hope of further commissions from George III.

England, 1763–1820

Good-natured, well-bred, and capable, West seemed easily to inspire the confidence of others. Portraits of him, such as an early Self-Portrait (c.1776; Baltimore Museum of Art) reveal that he was a conventionally handsome man, well-built, athletic, 5 feet 8 inches tall, with regular, refined features and piercing eyes. All his life he was unusually blessed with good fortune, and his arrival in August in London was no exception. He evidently expected to spend a short time there and then return to Philadelphia, but he was so well received as a self-taught prodigy who had studied in Italy, with the potential to become a great history painter in the tradition of Raphael (he was called the American Raphael by 1764), that he stayed for the rest of his life. His fiancée, Elizabeth Shewell (1741–1814), the daughter of a Philadelphia merchant, joined him within a year, after crossing the Atlantic with West's father, and they were married in London at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 2 September 1764. Elizabeth's cousin, the painter Matthew Pratt, also accompanied her and became the first of three generations of American artists (including Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, and Washington Allston) to study with West in London.

West entered two scenes of fabled lovers, his Cymon and Iphigenia (from The Decameron) and Angelica and Medoro (from Orlando Furioso), together with a third picture, General Robert Monckton (priv. coll.) as his London début at the exhibition of the Society of Artists in 1764. While the Angelica and Medoro is an eclectic work that reflects the recent British art historical past in being a typically rococo subject, the military portrait of Monckton, ambitiously full-length, backed by an army, and in a pose recalling the Apollo Belvedere, is more indicative, in its combination of realism and neo-classicism, of West's future. The pose is also reminiscent, perhaps flatteringly, of an earlier quotation of the Apollo in a portrait of Commodore Keppel by London's leading painter, Joshua Reynolds (1753–4; NMM). Reynolds, who welcomed West, expounded the view that artists could improve themselves by quoting such superior work and embracing the best of the Italian old masters through combination.

History paintings

Despite West's remarkable versatility throughout his career in terms of subject matter, it is as a history painter that he became best known. The most prominent artists in London followed the demand chiefly for portraiture so that the city lacked history painters of his potential stature. West's history picture The Choice of Hercules (1764; V&A) marks the beginning of a more pronounced neo-classical style. It is strongly influenced by Nicolas Poussin's composition for the same subject (Stourhead, Wiltshire), and therefore quotes, in reverse, the famous antique sculpture Meleager (Vatican Museum, Rome). Perhaps because it was so derivative, West did not exhibit it. Instead the archbishop of York Robert Hay Drummond's commission for a history painting led to the picture that established West as a leader of the neo-classical movement. The large Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1768; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut), showing an example of heroic courage from Tacitus, is arranged in an antique frieze format after the Ara pacis Augustae (Altar of the Augustan Peace) which West had copied in Rome. Not only the subject but also the style is classicizing. George III was so pleased with the Agrippina that he ordered a similar Roman subject for himself, The Departure of Regulus from Rome (1769; Royal Collection), the first of many royal commissions.

In 1768, while at work on Regulus, West played an instrumental role with the king in obtaining patronage for a Royal Academy of Arts [see ]. He also joined other charter members in helping to elect Reynolds as its first president. Eventually, despite his American origins, West became historical painter to the king in 1772, surveyor of the king's pictures in 1791, and second president of the Royal Academy in 1792, after Reynolds's death.

West's most famous picture, The Death of General Wolfe (1770; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), in the neo-classical tradition, was conceived as a history painting with the intention of morally uplifting its audience, but it is painted with the movement, drama, and more vivid colour associated with Romanticism. Furthermore, it marks a major departure in depicting a contemporary event as a highly dramatized (and therefore unusually self-conscious) history painting. Modern history painting had been attempted before, most notably by Francis Hayman, but without the impact of this picture. The subject is Major-General James Wolfe's death in 1759, at the moment when the British announced victory in a decisive battle against the French in Quebec. Reynolds objected strenuously to the use of modern dress, arguing against breeches and in favour of Greek or Roman costume as more appropriate to the content of patriotic self-sacrifice at an exalted level (akin to that of the ancients). Clearly he feared a threat to the status of history painting, within the academy, as the most high-minded form of art. West, however, prevailed, as Reynolds admitted, by producing an electrifyingly inspirational piece, with a Christ-like Wolfe, that was enormously successful when entered in the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1771. Through this precedent, which incorporated portraits with accurate detail and opened up the possibility of contemporary subjects, West introduced a new degree of realism (despite the fictitious grouping) to history painting. The popularity of this picture (purchased by Lord Grosvenor, who eventually owned at least eleven pictures by West) and the engraving that was produced after it by William Woollett in 1766, one of the most commercially successful prints ever produced, served as an inspiration to aspiring history painters for many years. Yet the impression that West's feat could be reproduced by others was largely an illusion. The market for history painting, with a number of exceptions, never really developed beyond commissions from the king, and West was the sole recipient of these.

From 1779 to 1801 West was engaged in decorative schemes at Windsor Castle which were part of a renovation to make Windsor the chief royal residence. He had already supplied six history paintings to hang with The Departure of Regulus at Buckingham House (later Palace), and several royal portraits, when the king turned his attention to the improvement of Windsor. In the most ambitious undertaking of his life, West eventually completed eighteen large canvases for the royal chapel at Windsor on the biblical theme of revealed religion. The project came to an abrupt halt, however, with the king's illness in 1801, and the paintings (never installed) were finally returned to West's family. Seven of the group, including the large Ascension (c.1781–2), were reunited in the War Memorial Chapel at Bob Jones University, Greenville, South Carolina. For the audience chamber at Windsor, West produced eight pictures (1786–9; Royal Collection) from the reign of King Edward III in the fourteenth century, which were remarkable at the time because of their relative accuracy in historical detail. West also provided an altarpiece (Detroit Institute of Arts) and designs for stained glass windows (des.) for St George's Chapel in the lower ward of the castle, and designs for an allegorical ceiling in the Queen's Lodge (des.). Nevertheless, his chief project at Windsor was the royal chapel with its planned works, numbering about thirty-six large pictures.

It is because of the royal chapel and a second commission in 1796 (also never completed) from the writer and art collector William Beckford to provide scenes from the book of Revelation for Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, that West became known as the premier painter of religious subjects in England. Indeed he reinforced this reputation by creating and exhibiting three huge biblical compositions in the last decade of his life: Christ Healing the Sick (1811; Tate collection), for which he received the record sum of 3000 guineas; Christ Rejected (1814; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts); and Death on the Pale Horse (1817; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts). The preliminary sketch (1796; Detroit Institute of Arts) for the last, an image of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, as a seeming explosion of energy and colour, is the antithesis of his earlier neo-classical style and much more vibrant than the version of 1817. West's late oil sketches were often justifiably preferred to the resultant large-scale works which, especially during the 1790s, were rather strongly outlined for the benefit of engravers. The sketches are more lively, and on a smaller scale West's deficiencies in training are generally less noticeable.

With a diverse output of over 700 known works, West clearly ventured in a number of different directions, such as genre painting, for example, Drayman Drinking (1796; priv. coll.), ‘historical landscape’, as in Lot and his Daughters Conducted by Two Angels (1810; Detroit Institute of Arts), or literary painting, as in The Cave of Despair (1772; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), precisely to maintain a show of leadership in the London art world. The latter suicide scene taken from Spenser's Faerie Queene is an early effort to evoke the terrible sublime as defined by Edmund Burke. To perpetuate his position West also attempted sequels to his Death of General Wolfe, but only one of them, involving collaboration with an engraver, came close to duplicating his earlier success in terms of content. In 1806 he completed a large Death of Lord Nelson (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), depicting the popular hero's death, several months before, at the moment of his greatest triumph, as the British under his leadership defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets off Cape Trafalgar. Nelson received the fatal bullet on the deck of his flagship and died, several hours later, below deck in the cockpit, but West dramatically enhanced the moment by placing him on deck with a multitude of supporting figures. He later corrected this inaccuracy in his more effective, probably Rembrandt-inspired, lantern-lit Death of Lord Nelson in the Cockpit of the ‘Victory’ (1808; NMM).

Later years

West's complacency and even self-puffery offended some of his contemporaries, but these weaknesses were perhaps balanced by an unusual openness, generosity, and kindness particularly towards students. He maintained a friendship with George III that was only occasionally threatened, by, for instance, Queen Charlotte's dislike or his visit to Paris in 1802 and admiration for Napoleon. When offered a knighthood (c.1792), he refused it in the mistaken belief that he might gain a hereditary title instead. As president of the Royal Academy he maintained his position with dignity and was re-elected over many years, despite some jealous political manoeuvring that led to his resignation in 1805 and re-election in 1806. West died on 11 March 1820, at his long-term residence, 14 Newman Street, London, and, as its president, lay in state at the Royal Academy before being buried on 29 March with great ceremony in St Paul's Cathedral.

Reputation

Angry over West's support of Lord Elgin's seizure of the Elgin marbles, Byron tried to undermine the artist's reputation in his poem The Curse of Minerva (1812), by calling him a ‘flattering, feeble dotard’. Nine years later, however, the British Press, or, The Morning Literary Advertiser had reason to claim that West's ‘reign in taste is now perfectly established’ (Alberts, 393). West's students, many of whom had assisted him in his larger pictures, were even more effusive after his death. William Dunlap predicted that ‘his influence on the art he professed will never cease’ (Dunlap, 33). Yet by 1840 if not earlier, West's reputation had gone into a precipitous decline. Recent scholarship, most especially Helmut von Erffa's and Allen Staley's Paintings of Benjamin West (1986), with the first catalogue raisonné, lent support to the gradual rehabilitation of West during the second half of the twentieth century. This catalogue establishes West as more versatile, in both style and subject, and more influential than most historians had previously acknowledged. His work was important internationally as a developing stimulus to the neo-classical movement. But, in a kind of reversal, his greatest contribution to the development of painting with The Death of General Wolfe was through promoting a new kind of picture, the long-lived modern history painting. More than anyone else in Europe he helped to revive an interest in history painting at the end of the eighteenth century, chiefly through the number and extraordinary popularity of engravings that were done after his work. By the time he died, West was one of the most prominent artists in the English-speaking world. He also changed the course of the history of American art by establishing the need for study abroad, particularly in England. As a teacher and fellow artist he led others by his example rather than through his ‘Discourses’ (of which only a fragment survives in manuscript) along an optimistic path, encouraging ambition and a certain amount of experimentation and always maintaining a high-minded purpose.

The elder of West's two sons, Raphael Lamar West (1766–1850), history painter, trained under his father whom he often assisted. He pursued the career of an artist with some success, but lacked his father's industry. He painted Orlando and Oliver (1789), from As You Like It, for John Boydell's Shakspeare Gallery, and exhibited at the Royal Academy for a decade beginning in 1781 and ceasing when he failed to be elected an associate member. A large painting, The Battle between Michael and Satan (stolen, 1982), of which a photograph exists, is possibly the picture exhibited by R. L. West at the Royal Academy in 1782 (von Erffa and Staley, no. 406). Very little of Raphael West's output is known to survive other than some of his drawings, etchings, and lithographs inspired by the work of his father and that of Salvator Rosa. In 1800–02 he tried unsuccessfully to emigrate, with his wife, Maria Siltso to an undeveloped part of the United States of America. He inherited a considerable fortune after his father's death and, with his brother, Benjamin West, erected West's New Gallery, at 14 Newman Street, London, to display his father's pictures in a commercial venture. In his later years, however, he had to apply to the Royal Academy for financial assistance. He died at Bushey Heath, Hertfordshire, on 22 May 1850.

Dorinda Evans

Sources  

H. von Erffa and A. Staley, The paintings of Benjamin West (1986) · R. C. Alberts, Benjamin West: a biography (1978) · A. Staley, Benjamin West: American painter at the English court (1989) [exhibition catalogue, Baltimore Museum of Art, 4 June – 20 Aug 1989] · W. Dunlap, History of the rise and progress of the arts of design in the United States (New York, 1834); repr. (1969), vol. 1, pp. 33–97 · J. Galt, The life, studies, and works of Benjamin West, Esq., president of the Royal Academy of London, 2 (1820) · Farington, Diary · A. U. Abrams, The valiant hero: Benjamin West and grand-style historical painting (Washington, DC, 1985) · R. S. Kraemer, Drawings by Benjamin West and his son Raphael Lamar West (New York, 1975) · J. Dillenberger, Benjamin West: the context of his life's work, with particular attention to paintings with religious subject matter (San Antonio, 1977) · N. L. Pressly, Revealed religion: Benjamin West's commissions for Windsor Castle and Fonthill Abbey (San Antonio, 1983) · D. H. Solkin, Painting for money: the visual arts and the public sphere in eighteenth-century England (1993) · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1634, sig. 504 · R. Strong, And when did you last see your father? (1978) · B. West, A discourse delivered to the students of the Royal Academy, Dec. 10, 1792 (1793)

Archives  

Fordham University Library, New York, autobiography · Hist. Soc. Penn., MSS · Morgan L., MSS · RA, letters and receipts · Royal Arch., MSS · Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, Friends Historical Library, MSS |  Bodl. Oxf., letters to William Beckford · RA, corresp. with Thomas Lawrence


Likenesses  

B. West, self-portrait, miniature, c.1758, Yale U. Art Gallery · B. West, self-portrait, watercolour miniature, c.1758–1759, Yale U. Art Gallery · A. Kauffmann, chalk drawing, 1763, NPG · M. Pratt, oils, 1765, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia · B. West, self-portrait, oils, c.1771, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC · B. West, group portrait, oils, 1772, Yale U. CBA · B. West, self-portrait, oils, 1773 (Self-portrait with Raphael West), Yale U. CBA · B. West, self-portrait, oils, c.1776, Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland [see illus.] · J. Downman, two paintings, oil on copper, 1777, NPG · G. Stuart, oils, c.1785, NPG · G. Stuart, oils, c.1785, Tate collection · B. West, self-portrait, oils, 1793?, RA · T. Holloway, line engraving, pubd 1798 (after B. West), BM, NPG · B. West, self-portrait, oils, c.1806, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia · F. Chantrey, bust, 1811, New York Historical Society · T. Lawrence, oils, exh. RA 1811, Yale U. CBA · J. Nollekens, marble bust, 1812, Royal Horticultural Society, London · C. Watson, oils, exh. RA 1816, NG Scot. · F. Chantrey, bust, 1818, RA · C. Heath, line engraving, pubd 1818 (after W. J. Newton), BM, NPG · B. West, self-portrait, oils, 1818, Society of the Dilettanti, London · T. Lawrence, oils, 1818–21 (Benjamin West), Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut; replica, Tate collection · F. Chantrey, marble bust, 1819, NPG · B. West, self-portrait, oils, 1819, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC · W. Wilson, medal, 1866, NPG · G. Dance, pencil drawing, RA · J. Downman, miniature, NPG · C. Muss, pen-and-ink drawing (after T. Lawrence), NPG · H. Pratt, group portrait, oils (The American School, 1765), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York · H. Singleton, group portrait, oils (Royal academicians, 1793), RA · J. Spilsbury, mezzotint (after B. West), BM, NPG · J. Zoffany, group portrait, oils (Royal academicians, 1772), Royal Collection · pen, ink, and pencil drawing (after T. Lawrence), NPG

Wealth at death  

approx. £100,000; £11,000 in debts: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1634, sig. 504; Alberts, Benjamin West