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: A West Portrait of the Italian Period


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
A painting of Benjamin West’s Italian period, a recent gift from the Chester Dale Collection, bring to the Art Institute a fourth and historically important example of the artist’s work. It is a portrait of the Countess of Northampton and her daughter, Lady Elizabeth Compton, done in Venice in 1762. Hitherto only four pictures have been definitely attributed to the three years West spent in Italy: the Portrait of Mr. Robinson, Cimon and Iphigenia, Angelica and Medoro, and a copy of Correggio’s St. Jerome done in Parma when the artist was en route to England. Mr. Dale’s gift of the West portrait is characteristic not only of his generosity to and his interest in American museums, but of the trend, on the part of American collectors as a whole, to share their collections with the public. This particular picture is interesting as an example of his catholic taste, and of his practice of acquiring good paintings whether or not they belong to the French Impressionist and contemporary schools that constitute such a splendid monument to his taste.The Northampton portrait, probably done on the swing around Italy recommended by Mengs to West as the best means of acquainting himself with the old masters, offers a further example of his development before his arrival in England. It is a portrait of unusual charm, both of color and composition. The Countess, clothed in a voluminous blue mantle opening over a flame-red robe, is seated in an open window that looks out on a rolling landscape. Her head is bent over her daughter who sits on her lap looking out at the spectator. The debt to Raphael, whom West greatly admired, is obvious, but the simplicity of the composition, the treatment of masses, and the lack of distracting detail in costume, show the personal feeling for portraiture that marked West’s best early work.While still in America West had painted some admirable portraits, notably that of Thomas Mifflin as a Boy, now in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. But even there, while earning his living by painting likenesses and trying to save enough money for a trip to Italy, he had a hankering to be a historical painter. Already he seems to have been torn between the desire to practice an art based on nature and an art based on what he could garner from the best of the old masters. When he arrived in Rome in 1760, where he was received with an interest and adulation of extraordinary proportions, admiration for the antique was at its height. It was at the suggestion of Mengs that West made a tour of Italy to study the works of the great Venetians, Correggio, Carracci, and others. Thereafter he was to return to Rome and paint a historical composition by which his talent might be judged by the Romans.Before he could undertake this journey, however, West had a nervous collapse occasioned, apparently, by the excitement of seeing and doing too much in Rome. He returned to Leghorn for a rest amid quieter surroundings, went back to Rome to finish his studies there, but was forced to return again to Leghorn, where an infected foot caused him to remain in close confinement for almost a year.When West had recovered from his long and painful illness, he set out on his travels with a Mr. Matthews. In Venice, where he painted the Northampton portrait, he was particularly interested in Titian’s use of color. After prolonged observation he arrived at what he believed to be the secret of Titian’s style. It was of little use to him, however, and color remained one of the weakest points of his work.The tour completed, West returned once more to Rome, where he painted the historical compositions suggested by Mengs. These were the Cimon and Iphigenia and the Angelica and Medoro which he later took with him to England. They were received with great acclaim by the Roman critics, and West was further honored by being made a member of the Academy, not only of Rome, but of Florence, Bologna, and Parma also.Thus it was that he arrived in England, in August, 1763, with a reputation already well established. In London, as in Rome, he had the good luck to meet the right people without delay, among them Reynolds and Wilson. It was at their suggestion that he submitted three pictures to the Spring Gardens Exhibition in 1764: the two historical paintings he had done in Rome, and a portrait of General Moncton. West’s paintings had an immediate success; a success that is the more to be wondered at because appreciation of painting in England was then at an ebb so low that artists were generally considered beneath actors in the social scale.West’s welcome to London was so flattering and full of such promise that he decided to settle in England for life. He might have regretted his decision had the Archbishop of York not taken him under his wing. Admired as his paintings were, they did not at first find a ready sale. If the Archbishop had not secured for him the patronage of the King, George III, his career might have been far different.Like West, Robert Hay-Drummond, Archbishop of York, believed that historical painting was the only worthy style in which a painter might work, and he endeavored to secure an annuity for the artist. He failed, and West continued to do portraits, probably because they were the one type of painting in which the English dared to invest at the time. The portrait of Lady Diana Mary Barker, reproduced on page 97, illustrates his general style of feminine portraiture at this period. It was done in 1766, and is in the suave, sentimental manner then in demand. It will be observed that West has here succumbed to the English convention of elaborate detail in the painting of the costume; a quality which is missing in the Northampton portrait.In 1767 West painted a picture of Agrippina with the Ashes of Germanicus for the Archbishop, and it was this picture that was instrumental in securing his presentation to the King. The Archbishop described the painting so eloquently to the King that West was commanded to bring his picture to the palace so that His Majesty might see it. George III was so impressed by it that he immediately gave West a commission for a painting of the Departure of Regulus.From that time forward, except toward the end of his life when his mind became unbalanced, George III was the close friend and patron of West. West’s first important commission was the decoration of the Royal Chapel at Windsor. In 1722 he was officially appointed Historical Painter to the King. The appointment set the seal of royal approval on a departure West had made in the painting of the Death of General Wolfe during the previous year. Instead of clothing his subjects in the flowing draperies of Greece and Rome, as was customary in historical paintings of the period, West had put them in contemporary uniforms. This flouting of tradition created a major sensation, but West persisted in his ides despite the remonstrances of all his friends and fellow artists. When the picture was finished it was generally agreed that he had been right in breaking with tradition, and the painting became one of his most admired works.West’s close association and friendship with the King, which remained unbroken throughout the Revolutionary War, encouraged him to present an idea which he, Reynolds, and some other artists had been contemplating: the founding of the Royal Academy. The King became actively interested in the project and the Academy was established in 1768 with Sir Joshua Reynolds as its first president. When he died, he was succeeded by West, the only American ever to hold the office.West’s prestige in England was, indeed, phenomenal. He accomplished a prodigious amount of work, yet he always had time to give advice and instruction to the young American artists who flocked across the Atlantic to his studio. Among them were Charles Wilson Peale, Trumbull Ralph Earl, Pratt, Allston, and Morse. He continued his work in portraiture despite the fact that he relished it little. One of the best of his portraits is that of Peale, done about 1768. He did several others, among them likenesses of the King, the Queen, and members of the Drummond family. One of the latter, acquired by the Art Institute in 1931, is reproduced above. It depicts Peter Auriol Drummond, third son of West’s patron, his bride, Mary Bridget, and George William Drummond, the sixth son of the Archbishop. The three are seated, looking at a portrait of their father to which Mrs. Drummond points with her right hand. It has been suggested that the portrait, done by Reynolds in 1764, was included in this painting to honor the memory of the Archbishop, who died in 1776, the year this group was painted. In the grace and adroitness with which he has managed a somewhat awkward composition, West displays the skill in arrangement so notable in many of his historical paintings.It was in the painting of these historical works that West found his greatest inspiration and pleasure. During the period preceding his appointment as Historical Painter to the King, he painted a series of historically important canvases other than those commissioned by the Archbishop and George III. Among then were Pulades and Orestes, The Oath of the Young Hannibal, Hector Taking Leave of Andromache, and the Death of Epaminondas. However stale and spiritless they seem today, they anticipated and contributed to the final development of the classical school in France. West’s love of the antique, which probably dated from his introduction to Dufresnoy’s De Arte Graphica when a young man, had become even more profound after his visit to Italy. He believed in the beautiful and noble sentiments expressed in his historical canvases, and he believed that others believed them too. Obviously they did, for his work was extravagantly esteemed during his lifetime.Yet West himself was to swing away from classicism and anticipate the French in still another movement—romanticism. When he went to Paris after the Peace of Amiens in 1802 to see the works of art with which Napoleon had enriched the French nation, he took with him one of his most important romantic works, Death on the Pale Horse. This canvas, now in the Pennsylvania Museum of Art, is a smaller version of the picture painted in 1796. In this painting, with its turbulent movement, its romantic approach, and its fiery treatment, West was sounding a note that was not to reach full pitch until the works of Géricault and Delacroix burst upon the French public almost a quarter of a century later. In the Salon of 1802, dominated by serene, cool works of the classical school, West’s painting must have seemed like a boisterous interloper. But it heralded the flood of romanticism that was later to sweep Europe.The romantic treatment and turbulent spirit that characterize Death on the Pale Horse are to be observed in the Institute’s painting of The Destruction of the Beast and the False Prophet, painted in 1804. For many years this picture was considered to be one of the preliminary sketches for Death on the Pale Horse. In his article on Benjamin West au Salon de 1802—La Mort sur le Cheval Pâle, published in the Gazette des Beaux Arts for June, 1932, Fiske Kimball of the Pennsylvania Museum of Art identified it as The Destruction of the Beast and the False Prophet, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1804. The subject was suggested by certain verses in Revelation, chapter XIX:“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 I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat on the horse, and 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. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.”This dynamic work, painted when West was nearing seventy, was among those which most appealed to his contemporaries. Today his historical and romantic paintings are less highly regarded than his portraits, which he considered the least of his efforts. They impress the modern observer as theatrically exaggerated and absurd, but so do the early films of Lillian Gish, which were lauded as great art not so many years ago, and so may Picasso’s great Guernica mural appear to the world of a hundred years hence. Fortunately for West, and his place in the history of American painting, he did not wholly give up portraiture, for it is in his portraits that one finds the greatest interest and merit today.Referenced Works of Art
  1. The Countess of Northampton and Her Daughter, Lady Elizabeth Compton. Painted by Benjamin West in Venice in 1762
    Gift from the Chester Dale Collection
  2. Portrait of Lady Diana Barker by Benjamin West
    Painted in 1766. Gift from Mr. and Mrs. James Ford Bell
  3. The Drummond Family by Benjamin West. Painted in 1776, the year West was elected president of the Royal Academy. Dunwoody Fund
  4. The Destruction of the Beast and the False Prophet
    Painted by Benjamin West in 1804. Dunwoody Fund
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Source: "A West Portrait of the Italian Period," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 34, no. 27 (November, 1945): 96-101.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009