Two centuries ago today, the American painter Benjamin West died in Britain, where he lived, worked, and had been second President of its Royal Academy, since arriving in London in 1763. Over the last couple of months, I have looked at some of West’s paintings, and told the story of his art. Today he is thought of as a lesser painter, with only two of his works being well known. In this article I’ll explain how incredibly unfortunate he was, and show some of his paintings which I like best.
West apparently decided early in life that he was going to be a great history painter, and was sponsored by wealthy Pennsylvanians to travel to Europe in 1760 to improve his developing painting skills. Unfortunately, West chose to go to Rome, which was almost bereft of good figurative or narrative painters at the time. The closest he could find to masters were Anton Rafael Mengs and Gavin Hamilton.
Had West been interested in landscapes, he could have gone out in the Campagna and been part of the birth of plein air oil painting, but his three years in Rome were not good use of his time.
On his return journey in 1763, he decided to pass through London in a short visit, and just stayed there. Here he was more fortunate in meeting Richard Wilson, the founding father of Welsh painting and an innovative landscape artist. But West wasn’t to be tempted by landscapes, and instead attached himself to Wilson’s student Joshua Reynolds.
At the time, British painting – apart from landscapes – was hardly leading Europe, and Reynolds was to become a highly successful portrait painter with little experience of narrative or history painting. West would have done much better had he become closer to Angelika Kauffmann (1741-1807) when she arrived in London in 1765.
Determined to paint what he termed ‘modern history’, West’s most famous painting remains a good example of what wasn’t actually such a novel idea after all.
This shows a scene from an almost uniquely brief battle between British and French forces on 13 September 1759. Within minutes of its start, the British commander 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 of Quebec, which ultimately led to France ceding most of its possessions in North America to Britain. Wolfe’s death was quickly seen as the ultimate sacrifice.
The strength in his composition lies in modelling the central group after a ‘Lamentation’ or pietà. His weakness is in not being more faithful to well-known facts, and engaging in fantasy by including a native ‘Indian’ American. No native Americans fought with the British forces in this battle, a fact which was acknowledged soon after West had completed his painting.
What no one had told West was that the more recent the event that you’re painting, the greater the need to be seen to adhere to well-known facts about that event. Instead, West seems to have thought that his painting was radical because its figures weren’t wearing togas; if that story is true, it reveals ignorance of history painting on the part of both Reynolds and West.
The next unfortunate event which marred West’s career looked at the time quite the opposite: King George III liked West’s work, and appointed him as the royal historical painter. Although this gave West financial security, the king had no interest in modern history paintings, and West was committed to a long series of classical history works instead of developing from The Death of General Wolfe.
Although West tried some ‘modern history’ paintings, such as The Treaty of Penn with the Indians (1771-72) and The Battle of La Hogue (1778), his compositions for those demanding works proved poor. He had more success in some of his religious works, including Isaac’s Servant Tying the Bracelet on Rebecca’s Arm, from 1775. This shows a moment from the story of Eliezer of Damascus, a servant to Abraham and his son Isaac, who identified Rebecca as the bride for Isaac. Eliezer was sent with ten camels on a mission to find the bride as the woman who offered to draw water for him and for his camels to drink. Having found her at a well, Eliezer gave her two golden bracelets and a nose ring, tokens which marked her as Isaac’s intended wife.
With just the two main figures, West is able to tell the story clearly, with his excellent depiction of a sour-faced camel lending a touch of wry humour.
Then came disaster.
As an American who had lived in Britain for fifteen years and was in the pay of its king, West must have found the sudden Death of Chatham in 1778 quite emotive. Chatham had been the political architect of the British success in the Seven Years’ War between 1757-63, which had won the British power in North America. He was a strong opponent of American independence, and at the time of his collapse in the House of Lords was speaking in opposition to the proposal for the withdrawal of British troops from America.
This time, West was upstaged by his former protegé John Singleton Copley, whose more dramatic version of this motif was painted a couple of years later, and immediately became the definitive painting of the event.
It is another relatively obscure religious painting which next shines out, a ‘sketch’ for an altarpiece commissioned for the new chapel of the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich. St Paul Shaking off the Viper was exhibited in 1787 at the Royal Academy, and shows Saint Paul performing his first miracle, in which he survives being bitten by a snake when he is on the island of Malta.
Saint Paul is shown at the apex of a crowd, the offending snake attached to his right hand. It’s an unusual motif, tackled with a composition which works well, and with wonderful use of the firelight to create dramatic effect.
When West did step outside his preferred genres, he painted rather well, making me wonder whether a more adventurous approach could have broken him free from his run of bad luck. He painted few landscapes, but in about 1788 was commissioned to paint The Bathing Place at Ramsgate for a collection of prints. This shows the novel experience of bathing in the sea from one of the covered horse-drawn ‘bathing machines’, at the nascent resort on the Kent coast at Ramsgate.
His simpler and more successful compositions, such as The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (1791), often seemed doomed: this is one of the huge paintings which he made for the Royal Chapel at Windsor, in a grand project for the king which was never completed.
Adam and Eve, dressed in fur clothing to cover their shame, are shown being cast out by the Archangel Michael, above whom is a flaming sword of light. The serpent slithers away on its belly, a cursed creature, to eat the dust. West also includes two unusual additions to the traditional: a lion is attacking a pair of horses, and above them an eagle attacks another large bird, perhaps a swan. These exemplify the loss of harmony resulting from the ‘original sin’.
Then, in about 1802, West painted this Eagle Bringing the Cup to Psyche, a small glimpse into the long and involved story of Psyche given by Apuleius in one of the first novels, The Golden Ass, written in the late second century CE.
Venus set Psyche a series of tasks, the third of which was to collect a glassful of black water from the source of the rivers Styx and Cocytus. The location was on top of a high cliff and protected by dragons. Psyche managed to reach the top, but fell into despair when she encountered the guardian dragons. Jupiter took pity on her and intervened with his eagle, fending off the dragons and retrieving the water for Psyche.
West’s last attempt at modern history painting, The Death of Nelson, was completed in the year after the national hero’s death, and was one of the first works by a prominent artist to tell this story. Tragically, it reveals that the artist had neither recognised his compositional strength in The Death of General Wolfe, nor had he realised the importance of accuracy. Nelson didn’t die as shown here on the quarterdeck where he was wounded, which here looks more like the finale of a lavish musical.
This painting succeeded not on its few strengths, but on its timeliness and public adulation for its subject. Exhibited first in the artist’s studio, it apparently attracted thirty thousand visitors in just over a month. Following West’s death, this ‘epic composition’ was offered to the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich, which declined it. Rival Arthur William Devis eventually succeeded in making his painting of 1807, rather than West’s, the most popular image of this event, and West fell back into second place yet again.
The other painting for which West is still remembered is his extraordinary portrait of friend and fellow Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky, from about 1816, turns Franklin’s legendary near-suicidal experiment into a romantic allegorical fantasy.
Benjamin West died in London on 11 March 1820. He was still serving as the President of the Royal Academy at the time, and was given the state honour of burial in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, in London, where lie the remains of Sir Joshua Reynolds and JMW Turner.
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.