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: Benjamin West 1738-1820


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In a small settlement in the newly-founded colony of Pennsylvania, Benjamin West was born two hundred years ago. This year, the Pennsylvania Museum of Art is celebrating the bicentennial with an exhibition of his work—engravings, drawings, and over sixty paintings, three of which, the Drummond portrait group, the portrait of Lady Diana Barker, and the Destruction of the Beast, are lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.West was not only a gifted painter, but unlike most artists, seemed to have had good fortune at his side from the very beginning. His family, who were Quakers, early recognized his talent; friendly Indians, runs the legend, showed him how to make pigments from plants; even the household cat helped his career by contributing fur for his brushes. And with this modest equipment he is said to have painted portraits which so impressed a Philadelphia merchant who chanced to see them that he was instrumental in arranging for the lad to meet other Philadelphians who, in their turn, were also impressed and invited him to make them a visit.In Philadelphia he met with nothing but kindness. A Mr. Wayne and a Dr. Morris were his first public patrons, the one giving him money to buy colors and canvases, and the other buying some drawings for a few shillings apiece. West never forgot them; over sixty years later he spoke of them to his biographer, John Galt, and asked that their names be most particularly recorded. A friendly interest was also shown him by another Philadelphian, a Mr. Flower, in whose house he spent some months. It was in the Flower household that he first became aware of the limitless horizons of literature. Up to then he had known few books beyond the Bible, but now the library of a “man of parts” was at his disposal, and for the first time he learned of the Greek and Roman civilizations, their poetry, and their art. The story of Socrates and his death impressed him especially, and he painted a large canvas of the latter subject that attracted a good deal of attention. Again good fortune was with him, for the Provost of the College of Philadelphia saw it and, realizing that here was a youth of great talent, at once offered, in the ungainly words of Galt, “to undertake to make him to a certain degree acquainted with classical literature; while at the same time he would give him such a sketch of the taste and character of the spirit of antiquity as would have all the effect of the regular education requisite to a painter.” Generous friends arranged for him to attend the College, and while the instruction he received there would not now be considered of a kind to help a young man make his way in the world, it never proved a barrier to his advancement, either social or artistic, and left in him an indelible preference for historic painting.By the time he was sixteen he was well launched as a portrait painter in Philadelphia and receiving five guineas a portrait. His studies in classical history had, however, instilled in him a desire to go abroad, and as a step in this direction he spent the next few years in New York, where he could ask for a portrait twice the price that Philadelphians would pay. Finally he arrived in Rome in mid-summer, 1760, and there, as Samuel Isham says, “the picturesqueness of his position as the member of a strange and fantastic religious sect come from the distant wilds of America . . . to study the fine arts was in every way calculated to arouse the interest and curiosity of the society of cosmopolitan dilletanti settled there.”In Rome, as elsewhere, he charmed and impressed everyone. He was made a member of the Academies in Florence, Bologna and Parma, and the reputation he made during his three-year sojourn in Italy was well known in England sometime before West himself arrived there, his luggage consisting principally of huge canvases commemorating scenes from the Greek and Roman classics, copies of the Old Masters, and some portraits. Three of these paintings he showed at the Spring Gardens Exhibition in 1764, and his success was at once assured.Indeed, so great was this success that he gave up all thought of returning to America, though to settle in London had not been part of his original plans. One of this new friends and admirers was Robert Hay Drummond, Archbishop of York, who presented him to George III. The King was immensely pleased with him, though the vast canvas representing Agrippina with the Ashes of Germanicus, which he had brought with him at the Archbishop’s suggestion, did not, apparently, appeal to the royal patron. But he was sufficiently interested and impressed to give him a commission on the spot for a painting which was to tell the story of the Departure of Regulus.From this time on, except for those periods toward the end of his life when his mind was clouded, George III was the close friend and patron of the American painter. His first important commission to him was the decoration of the royal chapel at Windsor, and in 1772 he was officially appointed Historical Painter of the King. It was about this time that West created a sensation by painting a picture of the death of General Wolfe at the siege of Quebec and clothing his subjects, not in the flowing draperies of Greece or Rome, as was customary, but in the uniforms of the period. Sir Joshua Reynolds, already a close friend of West’s, remonstrated with him, saying that the picture would be a complete failure unless the figures were shown in the garments of classical heroes. The King, also, was concerned. But West was adamant. The event commemorated, he insisted, had taken place in a region of the world unknown by either the Greeks or the Romans, “and at a period of time when no such nations, nor heroes in their costumes, existed.” When it was finished, both the King and Reynolds were thoroughly won over, the latter exclaiming, it is said, “West has conquered . . . I withdraw my objections . . . I foresee that this picture will not only become one of the most popular, but occasion a revolution in art.”West, with Reynolds, was one of the four founders of the Royal Academy, and so highly was he thought of, both as an artist and a gentleman, that at the death of Reynolds, the Academy’s first president, he was elected to succeed him. He was the only American ever to hold that position.Though West married an American girl, who left Pennsylvania against her parents’ wishes to join him in London, he himself never returned to America, and died in London in 1820, aged eighty-two and active to the last.West accomplished a prodigious amount of work, all of it received at the time with exaggerated praise and little, if any, discrimination of what was good and what mediocre. After his death, however, there was a revulsion of feeling: the pendulum had swung the other way; historical and classical painting was no longer fashionable, and the ten-league canvases of his later years were pointed out as being particularly still and lifeless, and, from the aesthetic viewpoint, meaningless.Today, however, he has come back into his own. Critics, their vision clearer at a distance, can judge his worth with less passion than could his more immediate worshippers or detractors. Aside from his extraordinary skill, we realize today his historic importance and influence. He was, to quote Fiske Kimball, important “not merely as the first American artist to achieve European position,” and influential “not merely as the founder of the American school, through whose hospitable studio passed two generations of pupils from beyond the sea—Pratt and Bembridge and Peale and Stuart, Allston and Morse. Importance in the general evolution of European painting; influence not merely on British painters but on the French. Position as a pioneer of European classicism and as the founder of romanticism in figure painting.”Of the three paintings lent by the Institute to the Philadelphia bicentenary, the Drummond portrait group is the most interesting historically, since it portrays Peter and George, two sons of Archbishop Drummond, West’s first English patron, and Mary Bridget Milnes, the bride of Peter. The three are seated in a row. Mary, in the center, wearing flowing garments and high-powdered hair, points with shapely forefinger to the portrait of the Archbishop, which George, at the left, holds on his knee. George had recently entered the church, and wears the black clothes and white lappet of his profession. At the right, looking nobly bored, is Peter Drummond, in the uniform of Colonel in the Yorkshire Militia. The painting of their father, which George is holding, is a small version of the one painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1764; in it the Archbishop is wearing his official regalia as Chancellor of the Order of the Garter, and holds in his hands the Royal Purse. It is not without interest that the original portrait of the Archbishop by Reynolds was exhibited in Minneapolis some years ago. It is now owned by the City Art Museum of St. Louis.The portrait of Lady Diane Barker has a gentle, mellow quality not often seen in the work of West. It was painted in 1766, only a few years after his arrival in London, and before George III had, by his princely commissions, freed him from the necessity of portrait-painting as a livelihood. The element of repose, as well as the quiet greys and soft rose tones that predominate, mark this as being an unusually suave example of West’s painting.The third painting lent to the bicentennial exhibition is The Destruction of the Beast and the False Prophet, shown on the following page. A detail of the central figure is illustrated on the cover of this Bulletin.For some time this composition was known as Death on the Pale Horse, a subject suggested by the eighth verse of the sixth chapter of Revelations. Fiske Kimball of the Pennsylvania Museum, however, has pointed out that certain verses of the nineteenth chapter furnished West with the true inspiration for this painting: “And I saw the heavens opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war . . . And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. . . . And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against his army. And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet, that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image.”This remarkably dynamic work, painted when West was nearing seventy, is notable not only for the red-brown tones characteristic of his vast symbolic paintings, but illustrates also the classical and romantic spirit which had such profound influence on his contemporaries and which was later discredited and vilified when Classicism and Romanticism went out of style. Byron’s apologetic reference to West as “Europe’s worst daub, poor England’s best,” does not present the poet as a discerning critic of art. Many decades were to pass, however, before that opinion was to be reversed. Today, the reputation of Benjamin West not only as an artist but as a significant landmark in American as well as European painting, is secure.The Destruction of the Beat and the False Prophet, as well as the Drummond portrait group, were purchased by the Dunwoody Fund, the former in 1915, the latter in 1931. The portrait of Lady Diana Barker was presented through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. James Ford Bell, who in 1931 included it as part of the furnishing and equipment of two rooms from Charleston, South Carolina, which they gave to the Institute in memory of James S. and Sallie M. Bell.The West Bicentennial Exhibition closes early in April. Visitors to the museum, therefore, may within a few weeks study more carefully the paintings discussed in this article.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Detail from The Destruction of the Beast and the False Prophet by Benjamin West (1738-1820). Lent by the Institute to the West Bicentennial Exhibition, Philadelphia.
  2. The Drummond Family by Benjamin West. Painted in 1776, the year he was elected president of the Royal Academy.
  3. Portrait of Lady Diana Mary Barker by Benjamin West. Painted in 1766 when the artist was twenty-eight.
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Source: "Benjamin West 1738-1820," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 27, no. 14 (April, 1938): 66-70.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009