While Joseph Wright of Derby was painting his unusual chiaroscuro narratives of the Enlightenment, a new American artist stopped off in London, on his way home to Philadelphia. Over the next fifty-seven years he was among the leading history painters in Britain, painted for the King of England, and became the second President of the Royal Academy in London.
When Benjamin 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, with little formal education, limited training in painting, and almost no knowledge of classical history or mythology, he seems an implausible figure. Quite how he became the eminent artist that he was when he died in 1820 isn’t 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 stories.
West had ambition, and his specific ambition from quite early in life was to become a great history painter. Even when he moved to Philadelphia, then growing to reach a population of 20,000, making it the largest city in the British colonies, opportunities seemed limited. He learned to paint with the help of various local artists, and by the mid 1750s was painting quite decent portraits. His first attempt at a history painting, showing the death of Socrates, was based on an engraving of the event, but had more originality than a mere copy.
From the help he got from local artists and his own study of some instructional books, his painting was good enough to convince a group of wealthy Pennsylvanians to sponsor his travel to and stay in Italy, to improve his art. From 1760 to 1763, West copied the classics, and learned further from Neoclassical painters such as Anton Rafael Mengs, and Gavin Hamilton.
In 1763, West started on his journey back to Philadelphia, intending to visit London for a short while on the way. He stayed for nearly sixty years. As in Italy, his distinguished sponsors had provided valuable introductions, and from those he met Richard Wilson, a founding father of British landscape painting, and his then 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.
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 inspire 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 succession 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 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.
West conveys this simple narrative effectively, and it isn’t surprising that this work 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! This is the scene which West depicts, in plain style, giving it a starkness appropriate to the story. He is sparing of blood, compared for example to well-known paintings of Lucretia’s suicide.
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. It forms a pair with The Continence of Scipio.
The story is based on Euripides’ play Iphigenia in Tauris, 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.
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 painting 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.
Although West doesn’t name the French commander, it’s thought 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, so saving Dieskau’s life.
This initial foray into painting modern history seems to have worked well, with a simple composition and clear differentiation between the parties. As Dieskau had been shot through the bladder, West has once again avoided showing any gore.
Encouraged by this success, over the next couple of years West worked on his first major modern history painting, and the only work for which he’s generally known today. 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 siege 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 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.
Accounts of the painting of this work, largely in later recollection by West himself, frame this as his key work, both in terms of his own career and its impact on art. West had set out to be a great history painter, and he considered that this was the work of his which transformed history painting.
Much of this centres on West’s choice of a subject from recent history, and his claim that he was put under pressure by Joshua Reynolds to dress its figures in classical Roman clothing. In Galt’s biography of West, he gives these words as being West’s own:
When it was understood that I intended to paint the characters as they had actually appeared in the scene, the Archbishop of York called on Reynolds and asked his opinion, the result of which was that they came together to my house.
West is reported as saying that Reynolds concluded with urging me earnestly to adopt the classic costume of antiquity, as much more becoming the inherent greatness of my subject than the modern garb of war.
To this West 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.
When Reynolds inspected the completed painting, Galt quotes West as saying that Reynolds remarked:
I foresee that this picture will not only become one of the most popular, but occasion a revolution in the art.
This is the stuff that legends are made of, and if you look at almost any account of West’s career and this painting, you’ll see those words echoed down, almost unquestioned, over the last two hundred years. Thankfully more critical examinations, such as Loyd Grossman’s study based on his PhD thesis, are a little less accepting.
Of course history painters didn’t put everyone in togas, although there is a figurative truth underlying this, in that non-religious narrative paintings as a whole were overwhelmingly made of classical subjects, particularly mythology, and scenes from classical histories. But West’s account doesn’t suggest for a moment that Sir Joshua Reynolds (he was knighted in 1769), the first President of the Royal Academy of Arts, objected to West’s proposed subject, only to the dress to be featured.
Whatever West and Reynolds may have thought or said at the time, painting post-classical history, particularly recent battles, was by no means unusual, and invariably used dress which was contemporary to the event depicted.
Two paintings had already been made of the death of General Wolfe when West started work on his. One, by Edward Penny, was completed and exhibited in 1763, and the artist made a smaller version in which Wolfe is shown dying in isolation from the battle, which was later turned into the hand-coloured mezzotint below.
Penny’s The Death of General Wolfe at Quebec (September, 1759) clearly shows all concerned in contemporary military dress, and in a composition quite similar to the central group in West’s later painting.
Tragically, George Romney’s version, which was also completed and exhibited in 1763, was taken to India and has since vanished. All the evidence is that it dressed its figures in contemporary military clothing, and employed a central group around the dying Wolfe which was not dissimilar to that in West’s painting.
Quite where Galt, West, and/or Reynolds came by the idea that it might be more proper for a modern history painting to use classical dress is something of a mystery, although Grossman does find limited discussion in some books of advice to artists.
It’s also worth noting that Reynolds had not studied under a notable history painter, and West only seems to have learned informally from Masters not well-known for their history painting. The genre itself wasn’t particularly strong during the middle of the eighteenth century, particularly in Britain.
It’s 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 couldn’t have been there. Almost immediately after the painting was exhibited, knowledgeable individuals were criticising 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 is the First Nation American sitting in the front. No First Nation Americans fought with the British forces in this battle, a fact which was acknowledged soon after West had completed his painting.
West wasn’t 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 awkward questions, it did look right.
Whether Reynolds ever said that West’s painting would bring about a “revolution in the art”, it didn’t transform history painting, but was part of a process of change which took place during the century from about 1750. West’s success, particularly in securing a commission from the King to paint him a copy, and in subsequent sales of prints, encouraged others to try the same. It was also West’s only truly successful ‘modern’ history painting.
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.