Biography of Benjamin West
Born in 1738, Benjamin West was the youngest son of Sarah Person and John West, a Quaker who had married twice and had ten children. John West held a number of roles - cooper, tinsmith, and innkeeper among them, and Benjamin was born into humble surroundings near a New World settlement in Pennsylvania.
He had a happy childhood and became fascinated with art at an early age. His biographer, John Galt, wrote: "The first six years of Benjamin's life passed away in calm uniformity; leaving only the placid remembrance of enjoyment." He was encouraged to paint by his parents, drawing his infant niece asleep in her cradle when he was just six.
Galt wrote, "After some time the child happened to smile in its sleep, and its beauty attracted his attention. He looked at it with a pleasure which he had never before experienced, and observing some paper on a table, together with pens and red and black ink, he seized them with agitation, and endeavored to delineate a portrait: although at this period he had never seen an engraving or a picture." In the early settlement days of colonial America, West had no access to art - he reportedly fashioned his first paintbrush from his cat's fur and learnt about pigment from local Native Americans.
Education and Early Training
Despite his eventual success, West had no formal training or education, but his raw talent caught the eye of many patrons and mentors who would help him progress in his career. At the age of nine, he met English artist William Williams who introduced him to painting and lent him art books. By the age of 15, he was a prolific portrait painter and had gained local notoriety. When he met William Henry, a rich entrepreneur who was an advocate of history painting, West's fortune was set. Henry took him under his wing, telling him that his talents should not be wasted on portrait painting and that he should instead concentrate on historical subjects. Henry recommended Socrates as a subject, and with that West, at just the age of eighteen, produced the first secular history painting in America.
The Death of Socrates captured the attention of Dr. William Smith, the provost of the College of Philadelphia, who invited West to move nearby so that he could become the young artist's patron. Here West moved among the intelligentsia and took part in a special program of classical learning. In 1758, Smith introduced West to the world in one of his magazines, writing, "We are glad of the opportunity of making known...the name of so extraordinary a genius as Mr. West.... Without the assistance of any master, has acquired such a delicacy and correctness of expression in his paintings [that he will] become truly eminent in his profession."
Subsequently, West moved to New York where he made good money as a portrait painter, but he was unhappy. West told his biographer that the institutions of the college and library in Philadelphia and "the strict moral and political respectability" of the first settlers had formed a learned and sophisticated community, but he found the society of New York "wholly devoted to mercantile pursuits" and "less intelligent in matters of taste and knowledge" than his old friends. The nascent capitalist pursuits of New York were distasteful to a man used to valuing the cultural and aesthetic aspects of life.
The year 1760 marked another turning point for the ambitious and serious-minded young artist when he travelled to Italy to learn from the Old Masters, one of the first American-born artists to do so. The influence of antiquity that he saw in Europe would have untold influence on his work and, in turn, the subsequent neo-classicism that dominated American culture. West cultivated an obsession with sculpture, which provided, in his words, the truest example of "genius directed by philosophy."
John Galt described West's 1760 encounter with the celebrated marble sculpture the Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican with a story that became mythologized in West's own life. The statue was kept in a case with doors which were opened for visitors. Galt wrote, "When the keeper threw open the doors, the artist felt himself surprised with a sudden recollection altogether different from the gratification which he had expected; and without being aware of the force of what he said, exclaimed, 'My God, how like it is to a young Mohawk warrior.'"
With this declaration, West had offended the Italians in his party; they were upset at the Apollo's comparison with a people they considered to be savage. West defended his remark, saying, "I have seen them often, standing in that very attitude, and pursuing, with an intense eye, the arrow which they had just discharged from the bow."
West was so overcome by what he saw in Rome, he fell ill and had to return to the coast in Tuscany to recover. West, writing about himself in the third person, said, "This sudden a climax from the cities of America, where he saw no productions in painting...to the City of Rome the seat of art and taste, had so forcible an impression on his feeling that he was under the necessity of leaving Rome in a few weeks, by the advice of his physician and friends, or it would put a period to his life." The description is in line with the symptoms of what was called Florence, or Stendahl, Syndrome, a psychosomatic disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, and confusion when an individual is exposed to an experience of great personal significance, particularly when viewing art.
When West returned to Rome, he studied with the influential 18th-century German art historian Johann Joachim Wincklemann, who would inspire a classical revival in all of Europe, and met painters Anton Raphael Mengs, Gavin Hamilton, and Angelica Kauffman. Under Wincklemann's tutelage, the artists looked to the art of classical Greece and Rome to give vision to the political ideals of the Enlightenment era. West spent his time catching up on his lack of artistic training, sketching the Italian masters and making studies from classical friezes and sculpture. He toured Florence, Bologna, Parma, and Venice and rose to fame. West's studies in Italy placed him in the foreground of the development of Neoclassicism, as his Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus preceded Jacques-Louis David's Oath of the Horatii (1784).
While in Italy, West again became ill with a dangerous bout of osteomyelitis which saw him confined to his Florence room for six months, but the dedicated artist continued to paint from his bed, having a special frame made to allow him to do so.
His trip to London in 1763 was never meant to be permanent as he just wanted to visit the home of his ancestors, but after finding success in history painting in England, he never returned to Italy or America. A year later, he married the Philadelphian Elizabeth Shewell at a service in central London's St. Martin in the Fields. He named his firstborn son Raphael, after the painter he admired above all others. He even produced a painting of his wife and child in the reverse pose of Raphael's Madonna della Sedia (1514).
By 1770, West had become one of the most successful artists in London, and it was in this year that he produced his best known work, The Death of General Wolfe, an epic history painting depicting the Battle of Quebec. The popular work had a profound effect on the art world and changed the way artists would produce history paintings.
Art critic Jules David Prown, wrote, "The history paintings that West produced after settling in England embodied the intellectual and moral values as well as the visual experience and information he had garnered in Italy." His purpose was to combine "ethical lessons" learned from the ancients with Christian morality. "Antiquity provided standards of reason, intellect, morality, and dignity; religion warmed these with emotion and piety," wrote Prown.
In 1768, West was made a charter member of the Royal Academy of Arts, and when its founder and president Joshua Reynolds died in 1772, West was made president. Four years later, West was made historical painter to the king, for which he was paid £1,000 a year. King George III adorned the Warm Room in Buckingham Palace with no fewer than seven of West's history paintings, enormous canvases that dominated the walls.
While West managed to place himself firmly within the British institution thanks to his friendship with the King, he used his New World origins to create a mythology around himself. Art historian Vivien Green Fryd explains that he exploited his colonial background to present himself as "exotic and unique, suggesting that as a native-born American, he had the authority to record the New World's history."
18th-century London was an important locus in the developing commercial art market, and West became adept at working it. He was often included in exhibitions, showing more paintings than his contemporaries, and he took advantage of the era's new mass communications and mechanical reproduction to grow a fanbase, while simultaneously building his relationships with rich and powerful patrons. As art historian David Solkin wrote, "London can be identified as one of the first metropolitan art centers where the various commercial, cultural, and institutional mechanisms characteristic of a distinctively modern art work came into being." During this time, many oil paintings were reproduced as mezzotints, and a fashion for cheap prints emerged, making the paintings available to an even larger audience.
Later Years and Death
West's role as a royal painter also meant he was at George III's mercy. The King demanded paintings that expressed the style and nobility of the court, but West's position was conflicted; while he made a successful career in England catering to royal patrons, he was unable to follow his dreams of pursuing certain scenes from American history. When the colonies gained independence in 1783, he felt unable to produce the heroic portraits of George Washington as he wished, although he did continue to make smaller works, studies of Native Americans who primarily acted as historical, or ethnographic, subjects but also held an important symbolic role. They represented America as "an idyllic state of nature, an uncorrupted place", according to historian John Higham.
As the political landscape changed, West prudently reduced his body of history painting. Prown explains, "Improvement in civic behavior implied change, and change could mean revolution." The artist continued to have a long and successful career, later focusing on medieval and religious subjects, becoming known as the "Raphael of America."
West experienced periods of ill health and suffered from chronic rheumatism, gout, and a bone infection during his lifetime. But despite these ailments, he led a long and happy life. West's private life was like an open book, Helmut Von Erffa art historian, wrote, "No scandals were ever reported of him even in this century of scandals." His wife said that in the forty years they were married, she had only once seen him intoxicated and had never seen him "in a passion." The painter could at best be serious-minded and at worst pompous. He was reported to have turned down a knighthood from the King, refusing it on the ground that he would better be suited the higher honor of a baronetcy.
He remained close friends with King George III, and on the King's death in 1820 was reported to have said, "I have lost the best friend I have had in my life." West died a few months later at his central London home at the age of 81. His biographer John Galt wrote, "Mr. West expired without a struggle.... On the 29th he was interred with great funeral pomp." He was buried at St. Paul's Cathedral, the mother church of London and also the final resting place of Joshua Reynolds.
The Legacy of Benjamin West
Prown said, "[West] was perhaps the first great American expatriate, anticipating Henry James and John Singer Sargent by a century." The reputation of the man who became known as "the father of modern art" took a hammering in the years after his death, with critic Walter Thornbury calling him "The Monarch of Mediocrity" and Lord Byron damningly referring to him as "Europe's worst dauber, Britain's best." Prown, though, defended him, explaining "Few artists were as long-lived, productive, influential and professionally in their own time as West. And few suffered such a precipitous and, in my opinion, undeserved post‐mortem decline in reputation."
Despite the protestations of some, others placed him on the forefront of modernism. Loyd Grossman, author of Benjamin West and the Struggle to be Modern (2015), wrote, "West remains among the most neglected and misunderstood of Britain's great eighteenth-century artists, lacking the social bite of Hogarth, the bravura of Reynolds or the easy elegance of Gainsborough...yet he was extraordinarily in tune with the artistic and intellectual currents that swirled through his turbulent times." West, he added, "was in the vanguard that created Neoclassicism and Romanticism."
West believed he had a moral duty to present truth through his art, and he took on students from both the United States and England. His influence was seen through three generations of American artists, including Charles Willson Peale, his son Rembrandt Peale, and Gilbert Stuart - the artist responsible for the portrait of George Washington that graces the dollar bill. Willson Peale was the first of the artist's pupils to produce classically influenced work in his portraiture. Similarly, John Singleton Copley referenced antique marbles in his work and studied the classics in Rome, after West's recommendations. With these artists, it is clear that West had, in Prown's words, an "unparalleled influence on the development of American art for over half a century."
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
First published on 18 Jun 2019. Updated and modified regularly