Telling Modern Stories: the narrative painting of Benjamin West, 5, Back to classics

Benjamin West (1738–1820), Eagle Bringing cup to Psyche (c 1802), oil on wooden panel, 29.8 x 42.6 cm, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ. Wikimedia Commons.

In the early 1790s, Benjamin West had completed a succession of mainly religious paintings, several of them on a grand scale. Among these, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (1791) was painted for his project to support the new Royal Chapel at Windsor, and I think is one of his greatest works.

Soon after that, West seems to have changed direction again, and returned to more classical narrative paintings.

Benjamin West (1738–1820), Hamlet: Act IV, Scene V (Ophelia Before the King and Queen) (1792), oil on canvas, 276.9 x 387.4 cm, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

His painting showing a scene from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet: Act IV, Scene V (Ophelia Before the King and Queen), painted in 1792, was originally made for inclusion in the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in London. John Boydell was an engraver and publisher who decided to exploit popular interest in Shakespeare’s works in an ambitious plan for a gallery of paintings of scenes from the plays, prints for general sale, and an illustrated edition of the plays.

This was launched in 1786, the gallery opened in Pall Mall, London, and the books published from 1791 to 1803. Unfortunately he did not secure the support that the project needed, and the paintings which he commissioned, including this one, were sold off in 1805, leaving Boydell’s company in bankruptcy.

Ophelia is seen in white, in a state of madness, with the king and queen becoming concerned for her at the right. Inevitably, given the nature of Boydell’s project, the painting is theatrical, and not a fair comparison against West’s other narrative works.

In 1792, following the death of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had been the first President of the Royal Academy, West was elected its second president. He served in that capacity until his death, apart from a period of a year between 1805-06 following his resignation.

Benjamin West (1738–1820), The Damsel and Orlando (c 1793), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 71.1 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Maria DeWitt Jesup Fund, 1923), New York, NY. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Perhaps inspired to look at more classical texts as sources, in about 1793 West painted The Damsel and Orlando from Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516-32). This scene shows Orlando and Angelica at the moment that the hero discovers that she no longer loves him, but loves another.

Angelica has removed the bracelet which Orlando gave her. He is struck by grief, and driven mad as a result, as reflected in his melodramatic expression and body language. Passages in this painting, such as the horse’s head at the right edge, appear unfinished.

Benjamin West (1738–1820), Musidora And Her Two Companions, Sacharissa And Amoret (1795), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

In his Musidora And Her Two Companions, Sacharissa And Amoret from 1795, West turned to a now-forgotten cycle of poems by James Thomson, The Seasons which had been published between 1726-30, and like Orlando Furioso was popular at the time. In this scene from Summer, Damon, who is peeping from behind a tree at the far left, voyeuristically watches the three young women bathing in a stream.

The young Damon is in love with Musidora, and towards dusk on a summer’s day is sat in a hazel copse, lost in thought. She, with her two friends, then comes to bathe in the nearby stream, and he watches them undress, forming a “soul-distracting view”. He finally can’t stand the sight any more, writes Musidora a note revealing that he had been watching her, then he rushes away. She discovers his note, recognises his writing, and responds with mixed emotions.

West does not attempt any of the subtlety of the original narrative, and instead this appears to have been his platform for a couple of nude figures.

Benjamin West (1738–1820), Death on a Pale Horse (1796), oil, dimensions not known, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI. Wikimedia Commons.

Death on a Pale Horse, painted by West in 1796, is another major work in his series intended for the chapel at Windsor Castle. In one of his most complex compositions, the artist depicts the end of the world, as detailed in the New Testament book of Revelation, Chapter 6. The figure of Death is shown at the centre, as a black ghoul with thunderbolts in each hand. With him are the personifications of War, Pestilence, and Famine, the other horsemen of the apocalypse, although these are less clearly defined.

West had originally produced a gouache and ink sketch for this painting in 1783, but the King rejected it. This highly detailed work was merely an oil sketch intended to secure Royal approval.

Benjamin West (1738–1820), The Fright of Astyanax (Hector Bidding Farewell to Andromache) (1797), pen and brown ink, brown wash, and blue and white gouache, 31.8 x 46 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

The Fright of Astyanax (Hector Bidding Farewell to Andromache) (1797) is an ink and gouache drawing which West used for two oil paintings, showing Hector preparing to depart for battle in the Trojan War. Hector, as the best of the Trojan warriors and their leader, is about to leave his wife Andromache, who is crying on his shoulder, and his young son Astyanax, who is scared and is being comforted by his nurse.

West gave this drawing to a Polish patriot, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, when he visited London briefly in the summer of 1797. Kosciuszko moved to Philadelphia by the end of the year, and in his turn gave West’s drawing to his friend Thomas Jefferson, who was then vice-president.

Benjamin West (1738–1820), Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant (1800), oil on wood, 67.7 x 89.5 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant is another study for a painting intended for the new chapel at Windsor Castle, and was among the last such studies to be made, in 1800. It was then exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year, when the King cancelled West’s plans, and later terminated his commissions altogether.

It is another very ambitious work, showing the scene from the Old Testament book of Joshua, Chapter 3, in which God stopped the River Jordan when in flood to allow the Ark of the Convenant (shown being borne by priests in the middle distance), Joshua, and all the the Israelites to cross dryshod.

West’s use of the dramatic effects of lighting is again impressive, although in the final composition he would have needed to resolve the contradictory shafts from the sun, over the mountains at the left, and the vertical shaft indicating the forces of God.

Benjamin West (1738–1820), Calypso’s Reception of Telemachus and Mentor (1801), oil on canvas, 101.6 x 142.9 cm, location not known. The Athenaeum.

At the start of the nineteenth century, as he recovered from the loss of his major project at Windsor and of royal patronage, West turned to more established classical mythology for his narratives. Calypso’s Reception of Telemachus and Mentor (1801) tells a story which would have been familiar to West from Angelica Kauffman’s painting Telemachus and the Nymphs of Calypso (1782), which was based on François Fénelon’s novel The Adventures of Telemachus (1699), in turn derived from the myths of Telemachus, son of Odysseus.

Telemachus has arrived on Calypso’s island, guided by the old man Mentor, who is in fact the goddess Athena. Calypso and her nymphs welcome them, as depicted here by West. I can only presume that the artist intended in this work to pay homage to Nicolas Poussin, as he has copied his style most faithfully. It seems a slightly odd choice of subject, given that Fénelon’s book was not published until over thirty years after Poussin’s death.

Benjamin West (1738–1820), Eagle Bringing cup to Psyche (c 1802), oil on wooden panel, 29.8 x 42.6 cm, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ. Wikimedia Commons.

Then, in about 1802, West painted this Eagle Bringing the Cup to Psyche. This is but a small fragment from the long and involved story of Psyche given by Apuleius in one of the first novels, The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses (not to be confused with Ovid’s), written in the late second century CE.

When Psyche is under the power of Venus, the goddess sets her a series of tasks, the third of which is to collect a glassful of black water from the source of the rivers Styx and Cocytus. The location is protected by dragons, and on top of a high cliff. Psyche manages to reach the top, but falls into despair when she encounters the guardian dragons.

Jupiter takes pity on her, and intervenes with his eagle, who fends off the dragons and retrieves the water for Psyche. She then moves on to the final trial, in which she has to take a box to the Underworld itself.

West paints an excellent account of the moment that Jupiter’s eagle brings Psyche a cup containing the water. The guardian dragons are shown at the right, immediately below the rather white water running down the rock face. Although the eagle is not likely to have impressed the ornithologist, West keeps to established tradition for Jupiter’s earthly assistant.

By this time, West’s painting of the Death of General Wolfe must have seemed a very long time ago, and his goal of launching a new genre of modern history painting must have seemed far away.



John Galt (1816), The Life and Studies of Benjamin West, prior to his arrival in England. Available for download from
John Galt (1820), The life, studies, and works of Benjamin West, esq., President of the Royal Academy of London. Available for download from
Text and other versions of the two volumes are available for download from Project Gutenberg, from which the above quotations are taken.

Loyd Grossman (2015) Benjamin West and the Struggle to be Modern, Merrell. ISBN 978 1 8589 4641 2.