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Benjamin West: The American-British Artist of the Eighteenth Century

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My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over sixty books.

Portrait of Benjamin West by Gilbert Stuart circa 1785.

Portrait of Benjamin West by Gilbert Stuart circa 1785.

Early Years

Benjamin West was born on October 10, 1738, in a large three-story house that his parents rented and operated as an inn. The inn was on a busy thoroughfare from Philadelphia to Chester, Pennsylvania. Today the house stands on the campus of Swarthmore College in what is now Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Benjamin was the youngest of ten children of John West, who had arrived in America in 1714. Benjamin's mother, Sarah Pearson West, had been born in the colony of Pennsylvania; her family had come to Pennsylvania during the first waves of colonists sponsored by William Penn in the 1680s.

Many in the West family were Quakers, but John and Sarah were not in good standing with the Quaker congregation and were not official members of the Society of Friends. When Benjamin was about six, his family moved to Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, where John was the proprietor of the Square Tavern. The building, which is also known as the John West House, still stands today and serves as a museum and home of the Delaware County Tourist Bureau.

Square Tavern, in Newtown Township, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, circa 2015.

Square Tavern, in Newtown Township, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, circa 2015.

The Budding Young Artist

At age six the boy’s talent for art started to become apparent to his family. One of his married sisters came with her baby Sally to stay with her parents for a few days. While the child slept, Benjamin was asked to keep an eye on the baby and swat away flies. While watching the child, Benjamin took paper and pen in hand and began to sketch the sleeping child. After some time, his mother came to check on the children. Seeing Benjamin fumbling with his hands, she approached him and took the paper. Looking at the page she explained, “I declare, he has made a likeness of little Sally!” His father was equally impressed at the boy’s budding talent and started to encourage his artwork.

Benjamin began to draw pictures of the birds and flowers in the neighborhood, and his sketches caught the attention of passing Okehocking Indians who frequented Newtown Township. The Indians taught the boy how to mix red and yellow paints from local products. These were the same colors that the Indians used for their decorative ornaments. His mother provided him with indigo, which produced a blue pigment. With the three primary colors in his palette, the young artist could now produce any color needed for his art.

West's first artistic mentor was the Bristol born painter and adventurer William Williams. Not long after Williams arrived in Philadelphia, he ran across the nine-year-old West. The young boy was visiting the city too, staying with his relative Edward Pennington, who had brought the lad there for the purpose of "indulging the hope of seeing some pictures in the city." In Quaker homes, décor was simple and the walls were typically devoid of art, making a trip to the city of Philadelphia a grand adventure for a young boy.

West recalled his first encounter with art when he was taken to see a recently completed landscape that Williams had painted for a wealthy Philadelphia merchant. West wrote of the painting, "The blush of joy which overspread my face on the picture first being exposed to view attracted the attention of those present even more than the picture itself…it being the first picture I had seen except the small essays I made in the country." Williams would remain a source of inspiration for the budding young artist until 1760 when West left for Europe. In addition to Williams, West had help in developing his talent from another visiting English artist, John Wollaston, as well as the Moravian preacher and artist John Valentine Haidt.

Philadelphia

In 1756 the teenage West ventured to Lancaster to expand his art education and began painting commissioned portraits. One of his first serious patrons was the successful merchant, William Henry, who was a very accomplished man in his own right. Henry suggested that West paint the scene depicting the death of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. When it was complete, the work became the first secular history painting created in America. West based his interpretation of the scene in which the aged philosopher drinks from the poison chalice on the writings of Plutarch, which Henry read to him. Another source of inspiration for the painting came from the circa 1730 volume by Charles Rollin titled, Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonians, and Grecians.

West's interpretation of the death of Socrates hanging on Henry's wall caused some stir in the small town of Lancaster. Among the admirers of Socrates was a visitor from Philadelphia, Dr. William Smith, who would turn out to be one of West’s most important teachers and patrons. Smith had come to America from Scotland in the early 1750s and was a product of the Scottish Enlightenment--a time when the Scottish universities flourished and produced some of the period’s great scholars. At the prompting of Smith, West moved to Philadelphia, where he became part of a small group of gifted young men sponsored by Smith.

In this group of young men was Jacob Duche, who became the chaplain of the first two continental congresses. Another distinguished member was Francis Hopkinson, who would go on to compose music, sign the Declaration of Independence, and help design the American flag. At age 18, West found himself living in America’s largest city, a protégé of an intellectual like Dr. Smith, and a close companion of some of the most promising young men in the colonies.

West's formal education was lacking; he had only minimal schooling and was known as a notoriously bad speller throughout his life. Under the guidance of Dr. Smith, West gained a veneer of metropolitan sophistication, providing him with the basic knowledge he would need to move in circles of the upper crust of Philadelphia. West was an ambitious young man, as were the other men in Mr. Smith's group. It was at this time that West became engrossed in the idea of painting historical scenes, a passion he held the rest of his life. According to West, "The power of expressing historical events in painting with perspicuity is one of the most impressive powers that can be given by man to convey useful lessons to others." In America, most artists made their living by painting portraits for the well healed and commercial art for businesses.

Dr. William Smith by Gilbert Stuart, 1801-1802.

Dr. William Smith by Gilbert Stuart, 1801-1802.

Study in Italy

At the encouragement of his influential friends in Philadelphia, West traveled to Rome in 1760 to study art. For an ambitious young artist like West, traveling, studying, and painting in Italy was invaluable to his future career. Rome must have been overwhelming for the young man, as the city with some 120,000 citizens was bigger than Philadelphia, New York, and Boston combined. The city, whose origins went back to antiquity, was a tapestry of churches and grand palaces, ancient ruins, cafes, shops, and markets all woven together. West later wrote of the experience of Rome, "That sudden a climax from the cities of America, where he saw no productions in painting, but a few English poets, and what his own pencil produced, to the city of Rome the seat of arts and taste, had so forceable an impression on his feelings..."

Just as in Philadelphia, West had a knack for meeting the right people at the right time. Soon after his arrival in Rome, the American artist was drawn into the highest artistic and social circles, with acquaintances such as Cardinal Alessandro Albani, Sir Horace Mann, Pompeo Batoni, Anton Raphael Mengs, and Thomas Robinson. West's trip to Rome had been made possible by his mentor Dr. William Smith and the wealthy landowner, merchant, and Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, William Allen. Benjamin Franklin was also in the mix of supporters of the young artist. Franklin was the founder of the College of Philadelphia where Smith was the first provost.

When West painted a portrait of his new patron Thomas Robinson, it was displayed to a group of art connoisseurs, who immediately mistook the work for the master artist Anton Mengs. When they were told the work was not by Mengs, they skeptically asked, “For there is no other painter now in Rome capable of executing anything so good?” When West was revealed as the artist, the guests congratulated him and acknowledged the young artist “as only second in the executive department of the art to the first painter then in Rome.” Soon afterwards, West and Mengs met.

In the course of three short years, West was transformed from a precocious local portraitist to an artist near the first rank of the international Neoclassical art world. Intellectually, West was nowhere near the level of his circle of top artists and patrons. He had only a moderate knowledge of the classics, read no Greek or Latin, and had only a working knowledge of Enlightenment language that he had acquired from Dr. Smith.

Before his planned return to America, West travelled to Florence, Venice, and Bologna, where he met with local artists and studied the work of the great masters. He then returned to Rome to study the work of the 15th century Italian master Raphael, who was known for painting historical scenes. While in Rome, West received a letter from his father, John, suggesting that since the war between England and France had ended, he should return home. His father also requested that he travel to England to call on his half-brother, Thomas West, a watchmaker in Reading. Neither John nor Benjamin West had met Thomas. John had left Britain in 1714, leaving behind Thomas’s pregnant mother. Since Benjamin was born in America to his father’s second wife, he had never met his half-brother.

A New Life in England

As West’s health was frail, he debated on whether to travel to England by land or sea, as both would be arduous. Through a connection in Rome, West was introduced to Dr. William Patoun, a Scottish physician and artist who was traveling to England. The pair set off for England by way of Genoa, Turin, Savoy, Lyons, Paris, and Calais. After an exhausting trip through the cities of Europe, visiting with as many artists and galleries as possible along the way, the pair landed at Dover on Saturday afternoon, August 20, 1763.

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The budding artist arrived in Great Britain at a fortuitous time in the country’s history. The Seven Years War had just ended, opening up new territories and new trade routes for the island nation. Importantly for the artistic trade, this newfound wealth was trickling down to the working class, allowing the possibility of a family portrait or a lovely painting or print to decorate the home. Adding to the possibilities of the country, it had a new young king who was a patron of the arts. King George III was handsome, popular, and progressive. The king painted a little bit himself, loved music, and was eager to advance the arts and sciences.

Using references from his important friends in America and Italy, West was able to quickly enter the highest circle of the British art world. At that time English art was considered second rate to the Italian masters, with the English art world dominated by portrait painters like Joshua Reynolds. While in London he made a lifelong friend in Reynolds and made frequent visits to public and private art galleries to study art. West’s affable demeanor allowed him to fit smoothly into the life of a London artist.

Marriage and Family

West was now at a personal crossroads. He had left behind in America his fiancée, Elizabeth “Betsy” Shewell. He wanted to marry the lovely young lady but was perplexed on the details with her over 3,000 miles away. Should he travel to America to marry her and return to England, which meant months at sea, at which time the great interest in England for the budding American artist might cool; or should he just return to America for good, marry Betsy, and be content painting portraits; or should he send for her? West sought guidance from Judge Allen and Dr. Smith, who just happened to be in England on business. The men listened to the young man’s dilemma and proposed what seemed like the most logical course of action: West would remain in Britain and Miss Shewell would travel to London to be married to her fiancée. The plan was to have a respectable gentleman travel with her as her chaperone.

Arrangements were made and Miss Shewell agreed to travel to London to be married. Accompanying her on the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to her new home and husband was Benjamin’s father, now in his seventies, and her 29-year-old cousin Matthew Pratt. Though details of the trip are sparse, Pratt wrote later, “June the 24th I took my departure from Phil in company with Miss Betsy Shewell, and Mr. John West, father to the famous Benjamin West, bound to London…”

The couple were married on September 2, 1764, in the church of their parish at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. They were accompanied on their honeymoon by Benjamin’s father and Matthew Pratt. The small troupe traveled to Reading to visit Mr. Thomas West and his family, visited Windsor castle, Oxford, and all that was worth seeing in the country. Pratt stayed with the Wests for over two years, studying art under Benjamin. The elder Mr. West spent his remaining years in England, staying in the homes of his family members.

Over their long marriage Benjamin and Betsy had two children. Their eldest son Raphael, named after the great Italian master Raphael, followed in his father’s footsteps to become a painter. Raphael was a student of his father and became an artist in his own right, though he never reached the level of fame his father did. The godfather of their youngest son, Benjamin Franklin West, was the family friend Benjamin Franklin.

Painting of Elizabeth Shewell West and her son Raphael by Benjamin West circa 1770.

Painting of Elizabeth Shewell West and her son Raphael by Benjamin West circa 1770.

The British Art World

In London, West exhibited his painting of the classic "Angelica and Medoro,” a depiction of two characters from the 16th-century Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso. The love story between the Asian princess at the court of Charlemagne and the Saracen Knight Medoro was a favorite theme of Romantic composers and writers from the 16th until the 19th century. West exhibited his rendition of the classic at Spring Gardens in 1764.

During this time, he picked up several important patrons, including Samuel Johnson; Dr. Thomas Johnson, bishop of Worcester; and Dr. Robert Hay Drummond, archbishop of York. For Dr. Newton, West painted The Parting of Hector and Andromache and a portrait; for the Bishop of Worcester, The Return of the Prodigal Son; and for Dr. Drummond, Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus. The young painter's work became all the rage in London and his studio was busy with visitors and new patrons. His work became so popular that it garnered more attention in the newspapers than the well-known painters, Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough.

Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus, 1768 by Benjamin West.

Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus, 1768 by Benjamin West.

The Patronage of King George III

Archbishop Drummond was a leading member of the party out of favor with the royal court, but he had a personal relationship with the king and shared his love of art. The king and Drummond had similar tastes in art, both favoring history paintings that displayed a respect for virtue, morality, and love of country. Drummond told the king of the American artist Benjamin West and his painting Agrippina, which aroused the king’s curiosity. The king sent for West and his painting for a private audience; this was a rare event for a member of the public, much less an American colonist. An audience with the king was a major bit of good fortune for an artist, as much of their income relied on patronage in high places.

After being given instructions on how to act when in the presence of the king, West presented himself at Buckingham House. The king entered the room and after a few words inspected the painting. The meeting with the king went exceedingly well, resulting in a request for a painting depicting the departure of the Roman consul Regulus following his capture by Carthage in 255BC by the king. While West was working on the Regulus painting, he was invited to spend occasional evenings at Buckingham House, where he often lingered talking with the king late into the evening. Thus was born a friendship between King George III and the artist Benjamin West that would last for decades.

Their friendship allowed West to come and go as he pleased within the palace. Over the years, George III had West paint many family portraits and commissioned several of the artist’s finest works. His first royal commission painting was for The Departure of Regulus in 1769, which the king hung in his private sitting room in Buckingham Palace. In 1772, West was appointed the historical painter for the king, painting approximately 60 pictures for George III between 1768 and 1801.

"The Departure of Regulus", by Benjamin West 1769.

"The Departure of Regulus", by Benjamin West 1769.

Formation of the Royal Academy of Arts

West became the director of the Society of Artists, a London based organization for the promotion of art, with over 200 members. However, there was dissension within the ranks of the group. The junior artists, some with little talent, formed a cabal to gain control of the organization from the older founding members. Before long, the old guards, including West, had either been expelled from the organization or had resigned.

News of the strife within the organization made it into the newspapers, alerting the king to the scandal. The king told West he would gladly be a patron of any new association that could be formed to better promote the arts. West was thrilled with the king’s enthusiasm and quickly enlisted the help of his fellow artists to form a new organization. Under the king’s sponsorship, the group drew up an “Instrument of Foundation,” establishing the guiding principle of the proposed organization and the by-laws. The new group was named The Royal Academy of Arts in London. The Academy was to have 40 members: a president to be elected annually, a paid secretary, and a group of part-time professors to supervise art classes free to the public. In December 1768, the Academy became official with Joshua Reynolds as the first president and West as one of the nine part-time staff professors.

The king provided funding to get the organization started and a location not far from Buckingham Palace to house the organization. Upon Reynold’s death in 1792, West became the second president, a position he held until his death in 1820, except for one year. The Royal Academy of Art is still in existence today in Great Britain, actively promoting the fine arts.

The Death of General Wolfe

One of West's paintings for the king, which became one of the best-known images of the 18th-century, was The Death of General Wolfe. The painting depicted the death of the British General Wolfe at the 1759 Battle of Quebec during the Seven Year's war, called the French and Indian War in the American colonies. In West's Death of General Wolfe, he painted the soldiers in their uniforms and depicted individuals that had not actually been at that particular battle.

The painting was a departure from tradition, which depicted heroes in classic togas. West’s introduction of period appropriate costumes caused a stir in the art community. The king refused the painting, believing that the artist's choice of clothing compromised the painting. It would be years before the massive 5x7-foot painting would be redeemed, as there was a shift in historical art toward more accurate portrayal of the characters. Though the painting was not well received by art critics, it was enormously popular with the public. An engraving of the painting allowed reproductions of the painting to be made and sold, and it became one of the most commercially successful prints ever published. After originally being exhibited in the Royal Academy in London, it was presented to Canada after World War I for the country’s service in the war.

"The Death of General Wolfe", 1770 by Benjamin West.

"The Death of General Wolfe", 1770 by Benjamin West.

The American School in London

Benjamin West was a generous teacher for promising young artists who sought him out, many of whom came from America. Charles Willson Peale spent three years in England studying under West. When he returned to America he became a noted artist, probably best known for his portraits of George Washington.

Another student, John Trumbull, after serving in the Continental army during the Revolutionary War traveled to England to study under West. His stay in London was two years; however, he spent seven months in prison on a charge of treason. After release from prison in 1782, Trumbull returned to America to wait out the war and then returned to England to continue his studies. Trumbull would become one of the great artists of the early independence period, called "The Painter of the Revolution."

Robert Fulton was one of West's more accomplished students; however, he is not best remembered as an artist, rather his place in history rests with his development of the world's first commercially successful steamboat. Fulton travelled to England and lived in London for years, becoming a regular in the West household. Mr. West had been a friend of Fulton's father in their youth. Though Fulton's talent as an artist was mediocre, his talents for invention and business were exceptional.

Another of West's students was Samuel Morse; even though he became a noted portrait artist, like Fulton, his notoriety lay in his inventive mind. Morse would go on to invent the single-wire telegraph system based on European designs and was the co-developer the Morse code for transmission of messages over the telegraph.

The American School by Matthew Pratt 1765. The picture depicts a scene in the studio of Benjamin West, who is generally agreed to be the figure standing at the left. Based on comparisons to self-portraits, Pratt is the man at the easel.

The American School by Matthew Pratt 1765. The picture depicts a scene in the studio of Benjamin West, who is generally agreed to be the figure standing at the left. Based on comparisons to self-portraits, Pratt is the man at the easel.

The End of Royal Patronage

In 1802 there was a short-lived peace in the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France. West took his painting Death on a Pale Horse to Paris for an exhibition. At the exhibition, the Emperor Napoleon saw the painting, admired it, and briefly spoke with West. The trip to Paris would prove to be costly for West, for when the king found out about the encounter with Napoleon, the king’s bitter enemy, their relationship began to sour. Around that time the king started showing signs of a serious illness, believed to be a hereditary blood disease that caused severe mental and physical disturbances.

The king eventually became completely insane, forced to turn over his royal duties to his son and heir, the Prince of Wales. In 1801, West received word that his work at the chapel at Windsor Castle would be suspended. The artist’s 20-year personal relationship with the king was coming to an end. In 1811, West's £1000 annual stipend was taken away. Though the royal patronage ended, West apparently held dear feeling for the king, as he was reported to have said, “I have lost the best friend I have had in my life,” when he learned of the king’s death in 1820.

Benjamin West, self-portrait 1819.

Benjamin West, self-portrait 1819.

Later Years and Legacy

In his later years West turned his talent toward religious historical topics. Perhaps his most profitable piece during that period was Christ Healing the Sick in 1801. The work was well received by the public and brought in a masterful sum of 3,000 guineas (around $1.3 million in today’s money). Two of his later works, Christ Rejected and Death on the Pale Horse, were also very popular.

West's health began to decline after the death of his wife in December 1814. Though his body was betraying him, his mind remained sharp until his final days. Early in the morning of March 11, 1820, Benjamin West drew his last breath. His body lay in state at the Royal Academy of Art and he was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral at a grand funeral.

Through his “American School” in London, West taught three generations of American artists, including such talents as Charles Willson Peale, his son Rembrandt Peale, and Gilbert Stuart. These noted artists and many others did much to grow and influence the world of American art. Another lasting legacy of Benjamin West resulted from his work as one of the founders of the Royal Academy of Art in London. This institution has fostered the work of many artists, the great and the small, for over two hundred years. He truly deserved the moniker given to him in his youth while studying in Italy as the “American Raphael.”

Personal Note

According to my West family tree generated in Ancestry.com, Benjamin’s father, John West, is my great…great grandfather. Research and learning about my distant relatives for this article was an especially interesting and satisfying activity for me.

References

  • Alberts, Robert C. Benjamin West: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978.
  • Grossman, Loyd. Benjamin West and the Struggle to be Modern. London: Merrell Publishers Limited, 2015.
  • Galt, John. The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West, Esq.: Composed From Materials Furnished by Himself. New York: Dossier Press, 2015.
  • West, Doug. The American-British Artist Benjamin West: A Short Biography. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2021.
  • Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1928-1995.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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