biography of Benjamin I WEST (1738-1820)

Birth place: Springfield, PA

Death place: London, England

Addresses: Philadelphia area, until 1760; Italy, 1760-63; London, England from 1763

Profession: Historical, portrait, religious, genre, and landscape painter

Studied: William Williams (who also lent West books on art and art theory), c.1750-52; Italy, 1760-63, with stops at Rome, Florence, Bologna, and Venice

Exhibited: Royal Academy, London; PAFA Ann., 1811-19 (and posthumously); AIC; Brooklyn AA, 1872

Member: Royal Academy (charter mem.; succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as pres. in 1792, serving, with one year's interruption, until 1820).

Work: PAFA; PMA; Yale Univ.; MMA; NGA, London; NGA, Wash., DC; NPG, Wash., DC; Royal Collection, London; Nat. Gallery Canada, Ottawa; BMFA (large collection of his drawings); Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, CT; Herron Institute, Indianapolis; Smith College, Northampton, MA; Kensington Palace, London

Comments: One of the earliest American-born painters to study abroad, he was an influential expatriate painter and teacher to American artists. West's birth house is located on what is now the grounds of Swarthmore (PA) College. West's talent was recognized early, and between 1752, the date of his earliest painting, and 1760, when he left for Italy, he painted nineteen portraits in the Philadelphia area and in Lancaster, and one in New York (1759). His American work shows the influence of his teacher Williams, as well as John Valentine Haidt and especially John Wollaston [note: West's American portraits can be found at the Hist. Soc. of Penn. and PAFA]. He went to Italy in 1760 and while there became part of the circle of Neoclassicists which included Anton Raphael Mengs and Gavin Hamilton. After settling permanently in London in 1763, he established a studio and within a short time had moved to the front rank of British artists, receiving the attention and patronage of English nobility and royalty. Among the first of his neoclassical historical paintings was "Agrippina with the Ashes of Germanicus" (Yale Univ. Art Gal.), painted in 1768 for the Archbishop of York. His "Death of General Wolf" of 1770 (there are two versions, one at Royal Collection, London and National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) was considered revolutionary and a landmark in history painting because of his decision to dress the figures, not in the classical garb of tradition, but in modern, and thus authentic, costume. In 1772 he was appointed historical painter to King George III. West's subject matter was of the widest variety: portraiture, mythology, the Bible, ancient and modern history, landscape, and genre, reflecting the aesthetic ideas of Gavin Hamilton, Shaftesbury, Burke, and Payne Knight and the demands of his patrons: King George III, Sir George Beaumont, Archbishop Drummond, Alderman Beckford, Lord Elgin and others. Included among his important works are "Penn's Treaty with the Indians" (PAFA) and "Saul and the Witch of Endor" (Wadsworth Athenaeum). His late works, such as "Death on a Pale Horse" of 1787 (there are several versions, the most well known is at PAFA; sketch at PMA), grew increasingly grand and dramatic in subject and style, linking him with the Romantic movement. Besides his painting, West's significance lies in his role as a teacher and symbol to young American artists. His London studio was an important training ground for art theory and technique, attracting numerous young Americans, including Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Sully, and Samuel F.B. Morse.

Sources: G&W; Farington, The Farington Diary, 8 vols. (London, 1922-28); Flexner, America's Old Masters; Flexner, The Light of Distant Skies; Galt, Life, Studies and Works of Benjamin West, 2 vols. (London, 1820), based on West's own account; Moses, The Gallery of Pictures Painted by Benjamin West (London, 1811); Phila. Museum of Art, Catalogue of Benjamin West Exhibition (Phila., 1938); Robins, A Catalogue RaisonnĂˆ of Historical Pictures by Benjamin West to be sold at Auction (London, 1829); Waterhouse, Painting in Britain 1530-1790 (London, 1953); von Erffa, West's Washing of Sheep," Art Quarterly, XV (1952), 160-65; Flexner, "Benjamin West's American Neo-Classicism," NYHS Quarterly, XXXVI (1952), 5-41; Mitchell, "Benjamin West's Death of General Wolfe," Journal of Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, VII (1944), 20-33; Sawitzky, "The American Work of Benjamin West," Penn. Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 62, no. 4 (Oct. 1938): 433-62. More recently, see Baigell, Dictionary; Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven, CT, and London, 1986); Ann Uhry Abrams, The Valiant Hero: Benjamin West and Grand-Style History Painting (Wash., DC: Smithsonian Inst. Press, 1985); Dorinda Evans, Benjamin West and His American Students (Wash., DC: National Portrait Gallery, 1980)."

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