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Benjamin West Photo

Benjamin West

American-British Painter

Born: October 10, 1738 - Springfield, Pennsylvania
Died: March 11, 1820 - London, England
"The power of expressing historical events in painting with perspicuity is one of the most impressive powers that can be given by man to convey useful lessons to others."
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Benjamin West Signature
"Correctness of outline and the justness of character in the human figure are eternal. All other points are variable."
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"It is a topic that history will proudly record, and the same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil of the artist."
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Benjamin West Signature
"A kiss from my mother made me a painter."
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"Rome holds the sources of true taste."
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"Remember, light and shadow never stand still."
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Benjamin West Signature
"I will let them see if an obscure Yankee boy cannot shine as great as any of them."
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Summary of Benjamin West

The British colonists did not bring a strong art tradition with them to the shores of North America, but this did not stop Benjamin West, the first internationally recognized artist to hale from the New World. Self-taught in his early years, West became a prominent portrait painter in Philadelphia and New York before travelling to Europe to immerse himself in the Italian Old Masters and Greek and Roman art. There he took up the newly forming Neoclassical style and painted several large-scale history paintings that were wildly popular with the public.

Wrapped in a mythology of self-promotion, West was hugely influential for a new generation of American artists, including Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley, that shaped the early Republic's visual identity. While his reputation languished with later critics and historians, West's eventual transition to Romanticism and embrace of current trends has prompted some scholars to consider West one of the first modern artists.


  • On the forefront of Neoclassicism, West felt that art should convey ideal virtues and moralizing tales to educate and civilize the larger public. Drawing on Classical visual and literary sources as well as Enlightenment era philosophy, Neoclassical art's emphasis on symmetry, stability, and nobility was an attempt to instill those same values in the citizenry.
  • While painting largely for a European, specifically British, audience, West was careful to skirt the tensions between England and its New World colonies. While sensitive to English feelings, West still insisted on painting subjects taken from the New World, including Native Americans and colonial battles.
  • West, though, was not content with telling long-ago tales and instead incorporated contemporary events and dress into his paintings. While criticized for flouting the rules of Neoclassicism espoused by the Royal Academy of London, West's wager paid off. His Death of General Wolfe was wildly popular and one of the most reproduced paintings of the time.
  • West's penchant for innovation and his knack for knowing what was popular among audiences led him to embrace Romanticism at the end of his career. Emphasizing more dramatic story telling and evoking the sublime, West's later works still engaged the viewer but by appealing to their sense of emotion instead of reason.

Biography of Benjamin West

Benjamin West Life and Legacy

Romantic Poet Lord Byron was cruel about Benjamin West, describing him "Europe's worst dauber”. But West’s history painting had great appeal and he remained very influential in both Europe and North America.

Progression of Art

Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia (1766)

Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia

West's journey towards epic history painting was a gradual one, which culminated in his first major canvas, whose subject was taken from the plays of the ancient Greek Euripides. The scene is set rather dramatically around an empty, central plinth on which the two defendants' fate rests. Pylades and Orestes, on the right, naked except for the sparse drapes covering their modesty, are accused of stealing the gold statue that can barely be seen in the top left of the frame. Iphigenia, dressed in white on the left, looks on at the pair as she prepares to deliver the death sentence. They are to be executed on the stone altar.

West said his "mind was full of Correggio" when he painted the work soon after he arrived in England from Italy. The high drama, rich color, and play of dark and light certainly recall the Italian Renaissance master, but West was also influenced by the history paintings of his contemporaries and friends Gavin Hamilton and Anton Raphael Mengs, who he studied with in Italy. Inspired by low relief sculpture of the Classical age, West highlights the foreground with bright colors and clear imagery. He also found inspiration in the frescoes of Raphael, his artistic hero.

This Neoclassical work was produced during the Enlightenment era, which promoted the value of civil society. As such, there was a moral argument for educating the people, and although West was not an intellectual, he agreed with these sentiments. For West, history painting's purpose was to "instruct the rising generation in honorable and virtues deeds." In 18th-century England, intimate knowledge of the history and culture of classical Rome would have been the preserve of the intellectual elite, but large works such as West's attempted to reach a wider audience.

Oil on canvas - Tate Britain, London

Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1768)

Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus

On this vast, almost 8-foot wide canvas, the viewer's eye is immediately drawn to the figural group in the center of the composition; Agrippina and other women and children are all shrouded in white, with their heads covered and eyes cast down, as they disembark from a boat. Agrippina, a granddaughter of the first Roman Emperor Augustus, clutches an urn, containing the ashes of her husband, and important military general, Germanicus, who died in Egypt under mysterious circumstances. The urn, while one of the smaller items in this busy work, is an important symbolic focal point in the painting, as it represents death (the ashes of Germanicus) but also the republican ideals and classical virtue that he fought for. The use of chiaroscuro throughout the composition further emphasizes the urn and the group of grieving women. In the foreground, women weep and bow to the arriving party as Roman soldiers keep watch; crowds observe from all around. In the background we see the masts of the boat and the classical architecture of Brindisi, an important port on the east coast of what is now southern Italy.

The subject came from Tacitus's History of Imperial Rome, and it was popular with Neoclassical history painters. It became one of West's most important works after it was commissioned by the Archbishop of York who, so pleased with it, arranged for West to show it to King George III. Increasingly, West took on the role of instructor, educating the public in the classics. As one art historian explained, "West's painting made the past immediate for mid-eighteenth-century Londoners and prompted contemplation of honor, resilience, and public virtue. We see in this work the essential ingredients of history painting: high seriousness, large-scale narratives of death and sacrifice drawn from well-known texts and histories, the incorporation of visual quotations, and meditations on the struggle between wickedness and virtue."

Oil on canvas - Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut

The Death of General Wolfe (1770)

The Death of General Wolfe

In The Death of General Wolfe, West presents the dramatic tale of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, also known as the Battle of Quebec, which took place on September 13, 1759, a pivotal event in the French and Indian War. Two groups of soldiers and the Union Jack flag frame the General, as he lies dying, Christ-like, in the middle of the composition. The formal arrangement recalls traditional religious scenes such as The Lamentation or The Descent from the Cross. Instead of apostles, though, Wolfe is surrounded by high-ranking friends, one of whom unrealistically dabs at the General's blood-free chest with a white cloth. Despite its designation as a history painting, historians know that only one of the identifiable men in the foreground - flag bearer Lieutenant Brown - was actually present at Wolfe's death. In the foreground, a native American warrior kneels, embodying physiognomic Classical ideals while wearing traditional indigenous American dress, signaling both the Romantic notion of the "noble savage" but also reminding English viewers that Native Americans and colonials helped the British during the French and Indian War.

The muted, less-defined background creates a theatrical depth while focusing the viewer's attention on the scene at hand. In the distance, one sees the masts of the British fleet on the St. Lawrence River and a cloudscape formed by gunfire smoke adds considerable drama. On the left, the smoke begins to clear, revealing blue sky and a cathedral spire, symbolizing hope.

The work has been described as a "blockbuster" in its narrative abundance and as a "breakthrough" in its formal innovations. History painting did not at the time present current events, and the heroes would certainly not be wearing contemporary dress. West went against professional advice from Joshua Reynolds, who warned that everyday wear would diminish the subjects' heroism. West ignored him, arguing in line with Enlightenment thinking, "It is a topic that history will proudly record, and the same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil of the artist."

Despite his stylistic rebellion, the piece was a success with the public, and its subsequent engraving by William Woollett found a huge commercial audience. One could find the print on private walls across Europe and America as well as on the sides of mugs. West went on to paint five more versions of this work, one of which King George III hung in his private collection at Buckingham Palace. West revolutionized what history painting would become in the hands of painters such as John Trumbull and John Singleton Copley. Art historian Loyd Grossman goes so far to argue, "If modernity is, in Michel Foucault's phase, 'the will to "heroize" the present,' then Wolfe is among the first great modern pieces."

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

William Penn's Treaty with the Indians in 1683 (1771-72)

William Penn's Treaty with the Indians in 1683

William Penn's Treaty with the Indians in 1683 commemorates and allegorizes the moment when Quaker William Penn secured a land exchange with members of the Leni-Lenape (Delaware) tribe for the new colony of Pennsylvania. The Neoclassical style along with the strong verticals of the trees and houses paired with the horizontal arrangement of the figures creates a sense of harmony and stability, equanimity and calm. The portly Penn, dressed in brown, stands in the center of the composition with his arms outstretched, and he is surrounded by his fellow Quakers and Merchants. The Native Americans dominate the darker, right side of the painting and their gestures and postures draw the viewer's eye to the central action of the painting. Two merchants kneel and offer the tribal leader a bolt of cream-colored cloth. It was diplomatic custom at the time to follow the signing of a contract (notice the treaty in the hand of a gentleman on the left) with an exchange of goods. As one art historian explained, "The exchange between Penn and the Natives becomes, in West's painting a metaphor for fairness and mutual exchange between Old World and New."

Of course, what West masks and elides is the appalling and horrific ways in which colonists, and later the U.S. government, treated Native Americans. Colonial theorist Beth Fowkes Tobin writes, "West's presentation of Penn's 'justice and benevolence' towards the Indians is a masterpiece, not only aesthetically as an engaging painting, but politically as a powerful piece of propaganda that continues to work its magic on viewers today." Despite Penn's apparent magnanimity, the houses in the background along with the ships in the port speak to the dramatic and devastating changes that would come to the Native American way of life.

It is also possible that as an allegorical representation, West was also thinking of the present moment and the increasing tensions between the colonies and the British Crown (tensions ultimately leading to the long American Revolutionary War), perhaps hoping for a calm and balanced relationship as he depicted here.

Oil on canvas - Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

The West Family (c. 1772)
c. 1772

The West Family

Much quieter and more somber than his dramatic Neoclassical history paintings, The West Family presents an everyday, domestic scene. West's wife Elizabeth, dressed in white, holds their young son Benjamin Jr. on her lap while the older Raphael stands near, resting his arm on the chair and looking down at his brother. On the right, the artist's father, John, and his half-brother, Thomas, sit stoically in their chairs with their hands clasped in their laps. West himself stands behind them gazing at his family. The crisp detail and the triangular groupings of the figures present a stable, simple composition, but West does seem to depict some ambivalence: the brother seems uncomfortable as he stares out of the window, the palette is rather gloomy considering the happy context, and West, partly in shadow and at the edge of the composition, appears removed from the familial scene.

Art historian Jules Prown praised the artist for making the "quotidian universal" and likened it to the biblical scene of the nativity, but the work saw a mixed reception; while some praised its veneration of domestic happiness, others dismissed it as a piece of self promotion. Art historian Kate Retford addressed this ambivalence, "The attack on West reveals the fundamental tension at the heart of the elevation and sentimentalization of domestic virtues... One had to be seen as a loving father and kind husband to revive approbation and applause. However to advertise one's domestic credentials could be seen to seek that applause actively and to make it appear that all was being done for show."

Oil on canvas - Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut

Death on a Pale Horse (1817)

Death on a Pale Horse

The dynamic and fiery Death on a Pale Horse was West's final major work. Completed just three years before the artist's death, the gruesome scene has much more electricity and violence than the measured subjects of his history paintings. The power of the piece's subject matter is emphasized by its vastness; the canvas measures more than twenty-five feet wide and over fourteen-feet high. The spiraling composition shows Death riding a white horse, descending on the earth with lightening bolts in his clenched fists as he rains terror. Behind him storm dragon-like creatures with eyes of fire, and beneath his horse's hooves one sees the carnage he has sowed. Strong men cower, while a woman and baby lie dead. Ghostly figures float strangely around the canvas.

The influence of Peter Paul Rubens is clear in this depiction of the scene from the New Testament Book of Revelation, and West returns to his Greek and Roman roots with the classical dress and armor. Importantly, though, West dispenses with Neoclassical, coherent storytelling and opts instead for emotion - dread, loss, terror, and the sublime. Art historian Jules Prown notes that Death on a Pale Horse is an important precursor to the likes of Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix. On seeing the work, art critic Thomas Hine wrote in 2018, "It is energetic and weird and barely coherent, like something from the Marvel universe. It is besotted with apocalypse, a wide-screen search for a cosmic conclusion. This wild West, who became so perfect an Englishman, might really have been the first American artist after all."

Oil on canvas - Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Benjamin West
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Thomas Godfrey
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    Francis Hopkinson
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    Jacob Duche
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Benjamin West Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 18 Jun 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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