Through the 1780s, Benjamin West had painted a succession of classical history paintings for King George III, and some fine religious works, but seemed to have abandoned his ambition to be a ‘modern’ history painter. During the 1790s, he tried some literary subjects, but by the turn of the century had returned to classics.
West’s 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a scene from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet: Act IV, Scene V (Ophelia Before the King and Queen), painted in 1792, was originally made for inclusion in the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in London.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 failed to 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. West was one of the many artists to have suffered as a result.
Ophelia is seen in white, in a state of madness, with the king and queen at the right showing their growing concern for her. 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.
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.
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 rushes away. She discovers his note, recognises his writing, and responds with understandably mixed emotions.
West does not attempt any of the subtlety of the original narrative, and appears to have used this as a platform for a couple of nude figures.
Death on a Pale Horse, painted by West in 1796, is another major work in his series intended for the King’s 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.
The Fright of Astyanax (Hector Bidding Farewell to Andromache) is an ink and gouache drawing from 1797 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.
Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant is a study for another painting intended for the new chapel at Windsor Castle, and was among the last 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 it was in flood to allow the Ark of the Covenant (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.
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 actually 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. If so, it seems a slightly odd choice of subject, given that Fénelon’s book was not published until over thirty years after Poussin’s death.
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 down 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 might not impress an 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 as far away as his home town of Springfield, Pennsylvania.
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.