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Benjamin West

1738-1820

American Neoclassical Artist

Benjamin West RA (October 10, 1738 – March 11, 1820) was an Anglo-American painter of historical scenes around and after the time of the American War of Independence. He was the second president of the Royal Academy serving from 1792 to 1805 and 1806 to 1820.
Benjamin West

Self Portrait of Benjamin West, ca. 1763
Born October 10, 1738(1738-10-10)
Springfield, Pennsylvania
Died March 11, 1820 (aged 81)
London
Field historical painting
Patrons William Henry
King George III

Benjamin West RA (October 10, 1738 – March 11, 1820) was an Anglo-American painter of historical scenes around and after the time of the American War of Independence. He was the second president of the Royal Academy serving from 1792 to 1805 and 1806 to 1820.

 

Early life

He was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, in a house that is now in the borough of Swarthmore on the campus of Swarthmore College,[1] as the tenth child of an innkeeper. The family later moved to Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, where his father was the proprietor of the Square Tavern, still standing in that town. West told John Galt, with whom, late in his life, he collaborated on a memoir, The Life and Studies of Benjamin West (1816, 1820) that, when he was a child, Native Americans showed him how to make paint by mixing some clay from the river bank with bear grease in a pot. Benjamin West was an autodidact; while excelling at the arts, "he had little [formal] education and, even when president of the Royal Academy, could scarcely spell"(Hughes, 70).

From 1746 to 1759, West worked in Pennsylvania, mostly painting portraits. While in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1756, West's patron, a gunsmith named William Henry, encouraged him to design a "Death of Socrates" based on an engraving in Charles Rollin's Ancient History; the resulting composition, which significantly differs from West's source, has been called "the most ambitious and interesting painting produced in colonial America."[2] Dr William Smith, then the provost of the College of Philadelphia, saw the painting in Henry's house and decided to patronize West, offering him education and, more important, connections with wealthy and politically-connected Pennsylvanians. During this time West met John Wollaston, a famous painter who immigrated from London. West learned Wollaston's techniques for painting the shimmer of silk and satin, and also adopted some of "his mannerisms, the most prominent of which was to give all his subjects large almond-shaped eyes, which clients thought very chic" (Hughes, 71).

Career

In 1760, sponsored by Smith and William Allen, reputed to be the wealthiest man in Philadelphia, West traveled to Italy where he expanded his repertoire by copying the works of Italian painters such as Titian and Raphael.

As painted by Gilbert Stuart, 1783-84

West was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin, whose portrait he painted. Franklin was also the godfather of West's second son, Benjamin.

In 1763, West moved to England, where he was commissioned by King George III to create portraits of members of the royal family. The king himself was twice painted by him. He painted his most famous, and possibly most influential painting, The Death of General Wolfe, in 1770, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771. Although originally snubbed by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famous portrait painter and President of the Royal Academy, and others as over ambitious, the painting became one of the most frequently reproduced images of the period.

In 1772, King George appointed him historical painter to the court at an annual fee of £1,000. With Reynolds, West founded the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. He was the second president of the Royal Academy from 1792 to 1805. He was re-elected in 1806 and was president until his death in 1820. He was Surveyor of the King's Pictures from 1791 until his death. Many American artists studied under him in London, including Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, and Thomas Sully.

West is known for his large scale history paintings, which use expressive figures, colours and compositional schemes to help the spectator to identify with the scene represented. West called this "epic representation".

He died in London.

References

The Death of General Wolfe, 1770

The Death of General Wolfe, 1770

  1. ^ Benjamin West Explore Pennsylvania
  2. ^ Allen Staley, “Benjamin West,” in Benjamin West: American Painter at the English Court (Baltimore, 1989), 28. For more on this painting, see Scott Paul Gordon, “Martial Art: Benjamin West’s Death of Socrates, Colonial Politics, and the Puzzles of Patronage.” William and Mary Quarterly 65, 1 (2008): 65-100.
  3. ^ "The Joseph Downs Collection". Winterthur Library. Retrieved on 2008-03-24.

 

Sources

 
  • John Galt, The Life and Studies of Benjamin West, Esq. (1816).
  • Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven, 1986).
  • Ann Uhry Abrams, The Valiant Hero: Benjamin West and Grand-Style History Painting (Washington, 1985).
  • James Thomas Flexner, “Benjamin West’s American Neo-Classicism,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly 36, 1 (1952), 5–41, rept. in America’s Old Masters (New York, 1967), 315–40.

 

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