Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Springfield, Delaware County
Early American painter Benjamin West became known for historical works and portraits.
Benjamin West was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, in 1738. At the age of 18, he studied art in Philadelphia and New York City. Then, he went to Italy to study for three years and from 1763 he remained in England for the rest of his life. Among his popular works are Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1768), Death of General Wolfe (1770), and William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1772). From 1792 to 1805, he was the president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, England. West died in 1820, in London, England.
One of ten children, Benjamin West was born on October 10, 1738, in Springfield, Pennsylvania, to John West and Sarah Pearson. At an early age, West was encouraged to draw by his parents and showed a talent for painting. In 1755, he spent a year painting portraits of people in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, including William Henry, a gunsmith in Lancaster. Henry told West he was wasting his time painting portraits and should paint historical and biblical subjects. With Henry’s advice, West painted his first historical work, The Death of Socrates (1756), dedicated to Henry. This painting is based on an engraving by Hubert Gravelot in the fourth volume of Charles Rollins’ Ancient History. Dr. William Smith, the first Provost of what is now the University of Pennsylvania, was blown away by his work and invited West to study with him in Philadelphia about Classical art, literature, and history. West was not a regular student at the university and did not receive much of an education except about art. West was also taught by William Williams, an English artist, and John Valentine Heidt, a German artist, living in the Moravian community in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He also spent a year painting portraits in New York so he could save enough money to study in Italy. In 1760, Dr. William Smith made an arrangement for West to take passage on a ship to Italy where he would start his journey that would lead him to success. Being the first American painter to study in Italy, West painted and took on the Neo-classical and Romantic style that were to rule the European culture for the next 75 years. Anton Raphael Mengs, a German artist, taught him at the Capitoline Academy and sent him to northern Italy to study art collections. Encouraged by Mengs, West also visited Florence, Parma, Bologna, and Venice. In 1763, West moved to England and in September 1764, in London, he married Elizabeth Shewell, a daughter of a Philadelphia merchant. They had two sons, born in 1766 and in 1772. With his successful works of Continence of Scipio (1766) and Pylades and Orestes (1766) at the Society of Artists, he and his family decided to make England their permanent home. Continence of Scipio (1766) illustrates the Roman general Scipio Africanus, nobly turning a captured Carthaginian maiden back to her boyfriend. Pylades and Orestes (1766) is based on a play by the classical author Euripides. The two semi-naked men have been arrested for trying to steal a gold statue of Diana from the temple. Iphigenia, a priestess of Diana, has brought them to be sacrificed on the altar. West focuses in the painting on the dramatic moment when Iphigenia recognizes the man in the red drapery as her brother, Orestes. West became a teacher for three generations of American artists who came to London to study under him, painters such as William Pratt, Charles Willson Peale, and Charles Robert Leslie. Later on, Dr Robert Hay Drummond, Archbishop of York, asked West to paint what is now one of his famous works, Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1768), leading to King George III’s lifelong patronage of West. This painting is based on an episode in Roman history showing the widowed Agrippina returning to Rome carrying the ashes of her assassinated husband, Germanicus. At the time, King George III appointed West a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1769. Joshua Reynolds was the first president of the academy and following a year later, West painted the Death of General Wolfe. In the painting, Wolfe and his men, guided by a nude Indian, were dressed on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec in 1759 rather than in Greek or Roman attire. He drew the exact details and the costumes were widely recognized allowing his work to be a popular success. Following in 1772, he painted another historical work, William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, depicting William Penn and his men offering gifts to the Indians outside in a red, white, and blue skyline. In the same year, King George III made him his historical painter. In addition to his paintings illustrating religious, classical and historical subjects, West continued to paint portraits of many royal family members. When Reynolds passed away in 1792, West became the second president of the academy from 1792 to 1805 and was re-elected in 1806. During West’s last years, he founded the National Gallery in London. In 1803, he continued to find new work in the medium, lithography having contributed to Specimens of Polyantography. In 1816, John Galt wrote a biography about him and West continued to teach talented young American students. On March 11, 1820, in London, England, Benjamin West died.
Death of Socrates. Private Collection: 1756.
Continence of Scipio. The Fitzwilliam Museum. Cambridge, England: 1766.
Pylades and Orestes The Tate Gallery. London: 1766.
Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus. Philadelphia Museum of Art: 1768.
Departure of Regulus from Rome. British Royal Collection: 1769
Death of General Wolfe. National Gallery of Canada. Ottawa, Canada: 1770.
William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians . Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Philadelphia: 1772
Ascension of Christ. Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. Hagerstown, Maryland: 1798.
Death on the Pale Horse. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Philadelphia: 1802
Death of Lord Nelson . The Walker Art Galley. Liverpool: 1806.
Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple . Pennsylvania Hospital. Philadelphia: 1811.
Christ Rejected . Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Philadelphia: 1814.
Dillenberger, John. Benjamin West: The Context of His Life’s Work. San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University, 1977.
Lord, Walton James. The World Of Benjamin West. Allentown, PA: Allentown Art Museum, 1962.
Rosenthal, Michael. “Benjamin West.” Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press. 27 Sep. 1999. 2007.
Staley, Allen. Benjamin West in Pennsylvania Collections. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1986.