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: Death on the Pale Horse by Benjamin West


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Several of the pictures bought by the Institute at the Blakeslee Sale have already been described in previous issues of the Bulletin. There remains the interesting study by Benjamin West for the large picture entitled Death on the Pale Horse, owned by the Pennsylvania Academy. The sketch shows strength and firmness, and is more pleasing and forceful in composition than the larger picture for which it was a study. The colors are subdued, being mostly shades of bronze and dull red. The subject is taken from Revelations VI, 8: "And I looked and behold a pale horse and his name that sat on him was Death and Hell followed with him, and power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth to kill with sword and with hunger and with death and with the beasts of the earth." The painter's conception of the text shows Death as a splendid youth seated on a white horse charging out of the sky at the head of a troup of heroic horsemen, below him crowds of human beings are fleeing from the vision, idols are falling from their pedestals, strange beasts are in the midst, and turmoil and destruction on every side.Very different is the Philadelphia picture for which this is a study. In the former we see Death appearing on the white horse in the centre of the canvas represented as a much older man with vicious face hurling lightning with both hands. Behind him are a few hideous creatures half enveloped in cloud. In the foreground are men and women fighting wild beasts or dying in agony. To the right a king upon a white charger rides from the scene.Benjamin West was born in 1738 in the Quaker village of Springfield, Pennsylvania. His biographers dwell at length on the extraordinary phenomenon of a boy, born and brought up under the conditions of that period and place, ever having developed a desire to draw. It is said that his early training was derived entirely from the Indians, from whom he learned the use of the rude pigments which they made for the adornment of their own bodies. Mr. Pennington, an early patron, provided him with his first paint box, armed with which he set out for Philadelphia at the age of eighteen. There he was able to get commissions for portraits from which he made a living. He later moved to New York, and in his twenty-second year found another patron who sent him to Rome. Many are the tales of the excitement caused in the Eternal City by the arrival of this young barbarian, the first American born artist to go to Italy. He was received with great favor and was much sought socially. He found many friends and patrons, executed numerous commissions, and was hailed as a great painter by his fellow artists. In 1768 he went to England with no intention of remaining, but the reception accorded him was so delightful and the opportunities for work proved so alluring that he sent for the lady to whom he had been engaged before leaving America, and was married and settled in London.West won favor almost immediately; in 1772 he was appointed historical painter to the King, and from that time on his commissions kept him very busy and brought him a large income. He is said to have received £20,795 for seven pictures illustrating Revealed Religion for the Oratory at Windsor, a very high price for those days. In 1768 he was one of the four artists chosen to draw up a plan for the founding of the Royal Academy, and in 1792, on the death of Reynolds, he was elected president of that society, an office which he held until 1815. It was customary for the holders of this office to be knighted, but West, being a Quaker, asked to have the ceremony omitted in his case. He died in 1820 and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.West became thoroughly Anglicised, and seems to have suffered no loss of favor during the trying days of the Revolution. That his sympathies were still, to a certain extent at least, with his compatriots is evidenced by the fact that his studio was known as the American school, and that he was ever ready to assist his fellow countrymen with money and advice. His pupils included such men as Peale and Trumbull, while Stuart spent eight years in his studio and was one of his favorite pupils. West was a man of ability, but not of sufficient originality to go far beyond the painters of his time. His great prosperity and popularity made it difficult for him to free himself from the tendency to shallow repetition of classical forms which was the style among historical painters of his day. The greatest step in advance that he made was in introducing contemporary military uniforms, as in his painting of the Death of Wolfe. While this seems to us now an obvious and wholly proper arrangement, in West's day the grandeur and importance of such a scene were supposed to require the use of classical costumes.The sketch belonging to the Institute was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1804. It is signed B. West, 1804.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Death on the Pale Horse, by Benjamin West
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Source: Margaret T. Jackson, "Death on the Pale Horse by Benjamin West," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin 5, no. 2 (February, 1916): 12-14.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009