This year, we commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the death of the American painter Benjamin West (1738–1820), who spent almost his entire career in Britain.
When West was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, in 1738, the edge of European ‘civilisation’ was only a hundred or so miles to the west. As the tenth child of an innkeeper, his prospects didn’t include becoming the most famous history painter of his day, living most of his career in London, painting commissioned works for the King of England, or being the second President of the Royal Academy in London.
He had little formal education, limited training in painting, and almost no knowledge of classical history or mythology. Quite how he became the eminent artist that he was when he died in 1820 isn’t particularly clear either: the most detailed contemporary account of his life and work was written by a novelist, John Galt, who compiled an entertaining collection of anecdotes and unreliable tales.
His ambition from quite early in life was to become a great history painter. After he moved to Philadelphia, the largest city in the British colonies with a population of 20,000, opportunities were limited. He learned to paint with the help of various local artists, and by the mid 1750s was making quite decent portraits. Soon his painting became good enough to convince a group of wealthy Pennsylvanians to sponsor his travel and stay in Italy, to improve his art.
Between 1760-63 when he was in Italy, West copied the masters, and learned further from Neoclassical painters including Anton Rafael Mengs and Gavin Hamilton. In 1763, he set off on his journey back to Philadelphia, intending to pay a short visit to London on the way, but ended up staying for nearly sixty years. As in Italy, his distinguished sponsors had provided valuable introductions, and from those he met Richard Wilson, a great landscape painter who was the founding father of art in Wales, and his student, Joshua Reynolds, soon to be the first President of the Royal Academy. West settled in Covent Garden, in the heart of London, and in 1765 married his fiancée from Philadelphia, at one of the quintessentially London churches, Saint Martin-in-the-Fields.
This copy of West’s Self-portrait dates from about 1776, but may be based on an earlier original.
West painted portraits to pay the bills, and history paintings for his art. King George III not only became West’s most important patron, but the pair became good friends, the King reading from translations of the classics to fuel West’s history painting. West was involved in the birth of the Royal Academy in 1768, although at that stage he was one of the leaders of a rival group, the Society of Artists of Great Britain, founded in 1760. This allowed Joshua Reynolds to become the first President of the Royal Academy.
In the late 1760s, West launched his career as a history painter with a series of ambitious works.
Although Cymon and Iphigenia (c 1766) might sound to have been based on purely classical myth, and is derived from the stories around Orestes, West’s source was almost certainly Boccaccio’s retelling in The Decameron. He shows the beautiful Iphigenia asleep at the edge of a wood, as the ill-mannered and loutish Cymon comes across her. He is so captivated by her beauty that he is transformed into a noble polymath – the transformative power of real beauty. This painting was well-received at the time.
Paetus and Arria (1766) shows a more obscure tragedy from Roman history, recorded in Pliny the Younger’s letters. Caecina Paetus was one of the senior members of a failed rebellion against Claudius in 42 CE, who was effectively condemned to death by the emperor. He was given the option of committing suicide, or ‘falling on his sword’, and his wife Arria intended joining him.
When Paetus proved incapable of stabbing himself with his own dagger, Arria took it from him, stabbed herself, and handed him the dagger saying that it didn’t hurt, as seen here. West gives it a starkness appropriate to the story, if rather sparing of blood.
Although it has been claimed that West painted Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia ‘immediately on his arrival in England’, it wasn’t shown until 1766, and forms a pair with The Continence of Scipio, which I am unable to show here.
The story is based on Euripides’ play Iphigenia in Tauris, which is concerned with myths surrounding the tragic figure of Orestes, and his mother Clytemnestra. In this scene, Orestes and Pylades, his cousin, are prominent in the right foreground. They have been brought before Iphigenia, a priestess of Diana, prominent in the left foreground, who stands in judgement over them.
Following his matricide, Orestes was told by the Oracle at Delphi to make reparation by returning to Delphi the gold statue of Diana, seen in the distance slightly to the left of centre. In attempting to seize and remove that statue, Orestes was committing an act of sacrilege, for which he and Pylades are to be sacrificed on the low altar between the priestess and the young men.
West sold this painting for over a hundred pounds (100 guineas), but later in life bought it back, only to sell it on to the collector Sir George Beaumont, who became John Constable’s patron.
Although most of West’s early history paintings were based on narratives from ancient Greece and Rome, another of these tackled a more contemporary event: General Johnson Saving a Wounded French Officer from the Tomahawk of a North American Indian (c 1764-68). This shows what was then a well-known act of honour, in the Battle of Lake George, which took place in the north of New York on 8 September 1755. It was fought between French and allied troops under the command of Baron de Dieskau, and British colonial troops and Mohawks under General William Johnson.
West doesn’t name the French commander, but it is generally thought that his painting shows an incident in which Johnson is claimed to have saved the life of Dieskau, who had been wounded, and paid the price of leading from the front. When one of the Mohawks came up to claim Dieskau’s scalp, Johnson is alleged to have stopped him, and saved Dieskau’s life.
West returned to the classics in Cleombrotus Ordered into Banishment by Leonidas II, King of Sparta (1768), a neo-classical frieze which was shown at the second exhibition of the Royal Academy.
This is another obscure story drawn from Plutarch’s Lives, about rival kings of Sparta in about 240 BCE. When Leonidas II was on the throne, Cleombrotus (or Cleombrutus) married the king’s daughter, Chilonis, who was half Macedonian and half Persian. There was friction over the succession to Leonidas, and when the latter fled to avoid trial, Cleombrotus assumed the throne. Leonidas later returned, and sought revenge by putting his son-in-law and usurper to death.
West shows Chilonis pleading Cleombrotus’ case before Leonidas, a speech so moving that the couple were sent into exile instead. Leonidas sits on a suitably Spartan throne and his daughter leans against him, and holds the hand of one of his grandchildren. The king averts his eyes from Cleombrotus, who is gesticulating towards his wife.
West’s major breakthrough, the painting for which he is still renowned, came in 1770: The Death of General Wolfe.
This shows a scene from an almost uniquely brief battle between British and French forces on 13 September 1759, which lasted only an hour or so. At the end of their three months seige of the French city of Quebec, Canada, British forces under the command of General Wolfe were preparing to take the city by force. The French attacked the British line on a plateau just outside the city.
Within minutes, General Wolfe suffered three gunshot wounds, and died quickly from them. The French commander, General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, was also hit by a musket ball, and died the following morning. The British line held, and the French were forced to evacuate the city, which ultimately led to France ceding most of its possessions in North America to Britain, in the Treaty of Paris of 1763. Wolfe’s death was quickly seen as the ultimate sacrifice of a commander in securing victory.
West’s painting shows three groups, arranged in a line across the foreground. On the ground in the middle of the central group is the dying General Wolfe, supported by two of his staff officers, and being tended by a military surgeon (in blue). Arranged almost ceremonially in front of him are his weapon and hat.
At the left is a group of six people, predominantly military, with a native American (First Nation) man sitting in front. They are all looking intently at the dying general. At the right is a smaller group, of only two military personnel, also looking on intently.
In the background there are scenes of a battlefield packed with combatants. In the centre distance is the city of Quebec, with palls of smoke rising from and around it. To the right there are several warships in the river, apparently at anchor and with their sails stowed.
Wolfe’s central group has common compositional features with scenes painted of the crucifixion of Christ, and is often considered to be modelled after a ‘Lamentation’ or pietà, although there are obvious differences in the people present (the Marys are central), their positions (there are commonly figures at the foot, and cradling the upper body), and most significantly in the fact that, at that stage, Christ’s body is limp and lifeless.
West’s choice of subject from very recent history was controversial. He claimed to have been put under pressure by Joshua Reynolds to dress its figures in classical Roman clothing. West is reported to have responded:
“I began by remarking that the event intended to be commemorated took place on the 13th of September, 1758, [actually 1759] in a region of the world unknown to the Greeks and Romans, and at a period of time when no such nations, nor heroes in their costume, any longer existed. The subject I have to represent is the conquest of a great province of America by the British troops. It is a topic that history will proudly record, and the same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil of the artist.”
According to West’s biographer Galt, when Reynolds saw the finished painting, he said:
“I foresee that this picture will not only become one of the most popular, but occasion a revolution in the art.”
It is often pointed out that, of the figures in West’s painting who have been identified, hardly any of them might have been present at Wolfe’s death, and several definitely could not have been there. Almost immediately after the painting was exhibited, knowledgeable individuals were criticising it for its historical travesties. Since then, a number of explanations have been manufactured to try to account for the presence of those painted by West. The most obvious case in point is the native ‘Indian’ American sitting in the front. No native Americans fought with the British forces in this battle, a fact which was acknowledged soon after West had completed his painting.
West was not a historian, nor was he educated to have any academic rigour. He was in pursuit of a romantic ambition which he claimed he had held since childhood. The century may have been the Age of Enlightenment, but it was still a period in which objective knowledge was slowly emerging from a murkier past. West painted what he thought conveyed the spirit of the moment, what he thought looked right. And so long as you didn’t ask any questions, it did look right.
The following year, West painted The Death of Hyacinth (1771), a remarkably homoerotic account of Ovid’s story from Book 10 of his Metamorphoses, in which the young Hyacinth(us) is struck in the face by his lover Apollo’s discus, dies, and his blood is transformed into the hyacinth flower. You can read a fuller examination of this story in my series on the Metamorphoses.
It’s a strange choice of subject, very odd for someone dedicated to transforming history painting, but much more was to come of West yet.
John Galt (1816), The Life and Studies of Benjamin West, prior to his arrival in England. Available for download from archive.org
John Galt (1820), The life, studies, and works of Benjamin West, esq., President of the Royal Academy of London. Available for download from archive.org
Text and other versions of the two volumes are available for download from Project Gutenberg.
Loyd Grossman (2015) Benjamin West and the Struggle to be Modern, Merrell. ISBN 978 1 8589 4641 2.