West, Benjamin

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West, Benjamin (1738-1820): Anglo-American Painter.

Benjamin West was the first American painter to study abroad. Born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, he taught himself drawing and painting by studying nature. By age 12 he was a professional painter and by the age of 20, he was already well known in New York and Pennsylvania for his “grand style” of painting. It was in his teen years that he made his first attempt at historical painting with his The Death of Socrates. Already an established portrait artist in America, West felt he needed to travel to Italy to study the great masters to pursue his interest in historical painting. At the age of 21, West went to Rome where he made several fortuitous acquaintances that set his career into motion. Almost immediately, West was welcomed all over Rome where they were fascinated that such a talented artist could come from America which they believed to be a savage land.

While in Rome, West came under the tutelage of Mengs, Anton Raphael, who soon realized that West needed little teaching in technique. Through Mengs, West was educated in the theories of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, which had a profound effect on his historical work.

After three years in Rome, West moved on to London where he planned a short visit that turned into a lifetime stay. As in Rome, West was an immediate sensation. Soon he met Gainsborough, Thomas, Reynolds, Sir Joshua, and Richard Wilson, and was exhibiting with the Society of Artists. In 1768 he received his first historical commission, Agrippina with the Ashes of Germanicus. After King George III viewed this painting, he commissioned several historical works and he and West became close friends. The friendship would lend much prestige to West throughout the majority of his career and aide him in founding many of his art societies, one being The Royal Academy.

Like Meng, West painted in the Neoclassical style but being an innovator, he broke tradition in his painting, The Death of Wolfe, by depicting the figures in contemporary dress. In its realistic depiction infused with drama, The Death of Wolfe embodied the Neoclassical ideal of noble acts and self-sacrifice without resorting to classical costume. Despite the intense controversy it created, the painting was considered a masterpiece.

By now, however, people were beginning to notice a style that some called West’s “Dread Manner”. This style was a break from the moral rationalism of the Enlightenment and had dark, irrational undertones that set the stage for the Romantic period that followed.

People were detecting sympathies with the American and French Revolution in his paintings and West, himself, became publicly outspoken of his support of these causes. At this time, when Britain was fighting France and losing its American colonies, his views were considered treasonous and he lost his presidential seat at the Royal Academy in 1805 but regained it in 1807. When he later visited Paris and praised Bonaparte, Napoleon, his royal stipend was canceled.

West is known as being the father of American painting having influenced Copley, John Singleton, Stuart, Peale, Pratt, Trumbull, Allston, Morse, Leslie, Earle, Dunlap and Sully.

Further Reading:

Barbara Brenner; Olivier Dunrea, The boy who loved to draw : Benjamin West, 1999.

Leah Sumner