Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/West, Benjamin
WEST, BENJAMIN (1738–1820), historical painter, was descended from an old family of Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire, members of which went over to America with Penn in 1681. His father, John West, settled at Springfield in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1714; he married Sarah, daughter of Thomas Pearson, a quaker, and had a family of ten children, the youngest of whom was Benjamin, born on 10 Oct. 1738. The farmhouse in which he was born is still standing near Swarthmore, in what is now called Delaware County, Pennsylvania. According to the life by John Galt, which was written from information supplied by West himself, his early life was marked by many remarkable and prophetic circumstances. At seven years old he drew his baby niece in her cradle in red and black chalk. He received his first instructions in art from a Cherokee, and obtained from him his first colours, which were the red and yellow used by the Indians. To these his mother added a stick of indigo, and so completed the chord of what were then called the three primary colours. He shaved a cat to make his brushes, and his early artistic efforts so astonished a merchant named Pennington that he gave him a box of colours. He also gave West some brushes and a piece of canvas on which the boy painted a composition from three engravings by Guercino, also given to him by his admirer. This picture was still in existence, and was exhibited by the side of his large picture of ‘Christ Rejected’ sixty-seven years after it was painted.
At nine years old he burst into tears at the sight of a landscape by an artist of Philadelphia named Williams, and declared his intention of being a painter. His father and mother were quakers, but they and the Society of Friends at Springfield were so convinced of the greatness of the lad's gifts that after solemn deliberations they allowed him to adopt art as a profession. When eighteen years old his mother died, and he set up as a portrait-painter at Philadelphia, and afterwards at Lancaster and New York. Then, with the assistance of 50l. from a merchant named Kelly, he went to Italy. The ship in which he sailed was protected from Gibraltar to Leghorn by a convoy under the command of Captain Charles Meadows (afterwards Earl Manvers), who remained his friend in after life. From Leghorn he proceeded to Rome, where he arrived on 10 July 1760, and obtained introductions to Cardinal Albani and other persons of note. The young American attracted much curiosity on account of the semi-savage life he was supposed to have led, but he soon distinguished himself by a portrait of Thomas Robinson (afterwards Lord Grantham), and was introduced to Raffaelle Mengs and Pompeo Battoni. The fame of the portrait reached his friends in America, and Chief-justice Allen and Governor Hamilton determined to supply him with funds. He remained in Italy three years, making friends and reputation wherever he went. He visited many of the principal cities of Italy, and was made a member of the academies at Parma, Florence, and Bologna.
In 1763, preceded by a reputation, he came to England with two pictures painted in Rome. Here he was received by three of his American friends, Dr. William Smith (provost of the college at Philadelphia), Chief-justice Allen, and Governor Hamilton. He took lodgings in Bedford Street, Covent Garden, and afterwards in Castle Street, Leicester Fields, and was introduced to Dr. Johnson, Burke, and Sir Joshua Reynolds, who received him kindly, and recommended him to exhibit his pictures. ‘Cymon and Iphigenia,’ ‘Angelica and Medoro,’ and a portrait of General Monckton appeared at the exhibition of the Society of Artists in Spring Garden in 1764. He became a member of the Incorporated Society in 1765, when he exhibited ‘Jupiter and Europa,’ ‘Venus and Cupid,’ and two portraits in fancy dress. In the same year he married Elizabeth Shewell, to whom he was engaged before he left America, and who (accompanied by West's father) came over to marry him. West dropped his quaker habit and manner of speech soon after he settled in England, and, although both he and his wife had been brought up as quakers, they were married at the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (2 Sept. 1765).
In 1766 he exhibited ‘Pylades and Orestes,’ ‘The Continence of Scipio,’ and other works which greatly increased his reputation; but it was a picture of ‘Agrippina landing at Brundusium with the ashes of Germanicus’ which is said to have made his fortune. This was a commission from Robert Hay Drummond [q. v.], archbishop of York, who tried to raise 3,000l., to enable West to give up portrait-painting and devote himself to historical art; but this failing, he introduced West (in 1767 or 1768) to the king, who admired ‘Agrippina,’ and suggested ‘The Departure of Regulus from Rome’ as a subject for another historical picture, for which his majesty gave him a commission. From this time till the king became permanently insane the royal favour never left him. He was one of the four chosen to draw up the plan of the Royal Academy, and was one of the original members nominated by the king. West exhibited ‘Regulus’ at its first exhibition in 1769. In 1772 he was appointed historical painter to the king, and in 1790 surveyor of the royal pictures. He was employed to decorate St. George's Hall, Windsor, with eight pictures from the life of Edward III, and the royal oratory with a series of thirty-six on the progress of revealed religion, twenty-eight of which were executed. He also painted a number of royal portraits, singly or in groups, and received other commissions, including one for a copy of his celebrated picture of the ‘Death of Wolfe.’ This picture was the first in which a modern battle was represented in modern costume instead of that of Greeks and Romans. The feeling against such a daring innovation was very strong, and when West's intention was understood, Sir Joshua Reynolds called upon West, with the archbishop of York, and tried to dissuade him from his project; but West was firm, and said: ‘The event to be commemorated happened in the year 1759, in a region of the world unknown to the Greeks and Romans, and at a period of time when no warriors who wore such costume existed. The subject I have to represent is a great battle fought and won, and the same truth which gives law to the historian should rule the painter.’ They came again when the picture was finished, when Reynolds said to Drummond: ‘West has conquered; he has treated the subject as it ought to be treated. I retract my objections. I foresee that this picture will not only become one of the most popular, but will occasion a revolution in art.’ All, however, were not convinced, and James Barry (1741–1806) [q. v.], in protest against such an indignity to historical art, painted the same subject with all the figures nude. Reynolds's prophecies were nevertheless verified, and the ‘Death of Wolfe’ was the most successful and the best of all West's pictures. Woollett's plate after this picture had the largest sale of any modern engraving [see Boydell, John]. The ‘Death of Wolfe’ was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771, and was purchased by Lord Grosvenor. A copy of it is at Hampton Court. In the same exhibition West had seven other pictures of classical and biblical subjects, including ‘Hector and Andromache,’ painted for Dr. Newton, and the ‘Prodigal Son’ for the bishop of Worcester. The next year he produced another scene from modern American history, ‘William Penn's Treaty with the Indians’ (now at Philadelphia). In 1780 he exhibited two modern battle pieces, the ‘Battle of the Boyne’ and the ‘Destruction of the French Fleet at La Hogue.’ These pictures, all of which were engraved, greatly increased his popularity. He afterwards painted the ‘Death of Chevalier Bayard,’ the ‘Death of Nelson,’ ‘Treaty between Lord Cornwallis and Tippoo Sahib,’ ‘Oliver Cromwell dissolving Parliament,’ a few scenes from Spenser and Tasso, two for Boydell's ‘Shakespeare,’ and others from modern history and poetry. But such pictures were very few in comparison with his sacred and classical works. In 1774 he exhibited ‘The Angels appear to the Shepherds’ for the altar of a cathedral, and ‘Moses receiving the Tables’ (intended for St. Paul's Cathedral). He also painted altar-pieces for St. Stephen's, Walbrook, Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, Greenwich Hospital Chapel, and other churches, and was regarded as the greatest historical painter of the English school. In 1792, at the death of Sir Joshua Reynolds, he was elected president of the Royal Academy, a position he held till his death, with the exception of the short interregnum of James Wyatt [q. v.] The king offered him knighthood on his appointment, but he refused it on the ground that it would not add to the eminence he had gained by his pencil, but at the same time he gave a hint that he would accept a baronetcy. The hint was not taken, but the king's favour continued, and he went on painting his pictures for the chapel at Windsor till their progress was interrupted by the king's illness in 1801. Ill-natured attacks on account of the royal patronage now made him produce an account which showed that from 1768 to 1801 he had executed sixty-four pictures and other designs for the king, and had received for them 34,187l. On his recovery George III took him again under his protection, and allowed him 1,000l. a year. In 1803 or 1804 West went to Paris, and saw the great collection of works of art gathered in the Louvre by Bonaparte, of whom he was a great admirer. In 1804 he had a disagreement with the academy and resigned the presidency in December, but was re-elected early in 1805. About this time he endeavoured to form a national association for the encouragement of great works of art. He wrote an address to the king upon the subject, and received some assurance of ministerial assistance, which was never given. West had to abandon his scheme, but it was partly owing to his efforts that the British Institution was founded in 1805. In 1811 George III became permanently insane, and West's pension of 1,000l. a year was stopped without notice. He bore the loss without complaint, and went on painting with his usual regularity. He was now growing old, but his ambition and his belief in his own powers increased rather than diminished. He began to paint a series of scriptural subjects upon a large scale. The first of these was a picture of ‘Christ healing the Sick in the Temple,’ which was painted for the quakers of Philadelphia in aid of an hospital to be erected there. When exhibited in London it had a great success, and the British Institution offered West three thousand guineas for it. He accepted this offer on condition that he should make a copy of it for Philadelphia. The original was presented to the National Gallery by the British Institution in 1826, and has been engraved on a large scale by Charles Heath, and on a small scale for Jones's ‘National Gallery.’ The copy was exhibited in America, and a wing was added to the hospital out of the profits of the exhibition. To show his gratitude to the British Institution, West in 1815 had a medal struck, and presented one to each of the forty directors, of whom the prince regent was the president (see Annals of the Fine Arts, 1816 p. 259, and 1817 p. 281). These large pictures included the ‘Descent of the Holy Ghost on Christ at the Jordan’ (ten feet by fourteen); ‘The Crucifixion’ (sixteen feet by twenty-eight); and ‘The Ascension’ (twelve feet by eighteen). Perhaps the most ambitious and least successful of all was ‘Death on the Pale Horse’ (now in the Pennsylvanian Academy). The picture was exhibited at his own gallery in 1817. In this year, on 6 Dec., he lost his wife. His own strength now began gradually to fail. He suffered from gout and rheumatism, but it was of no specified complaint that he expired on 11 March 1820 at his house, 14 Newman Street, where he had lived for forty-five years. His body lay in state at the Royal Academy, and was buried with great honour in St. Paul's Cathedral. For some years after his death his gallery in Newman Street was open to the public, but it attracted few visitors. His remaining works were sold by Robins in May 1829, when 181 pictures realised 19,137 guineas, ‘Death on the Pale Horse’ fetching two thousand guineas, and ‘Christ Rejected’ three thousand guineas. This shows that, though his gallery was deserted, his reputation outlived him for many years; but in 1840 a picture of the ‘Annunciation,’ for which he had received eight hundred guineas from the vestry of St. Marylebone, London, was sold for 10l.
West's private life was irreproachable. He was extremely industrious, and produced over four hundred works. He bore successes and reverses with equanimity. He was kind to young artists, free from jealousy, and generous beyond his means. Of good presence and gentle manners, he held his own in distinguished society, and filled with dignity the office of president of the Royal Academy. His serenity was sustained by his profound belief in his own genius—a belief which increased with his years. Leigh Hunt has left a charming picture of the kind, vain old man in his stately house, surrounded by his own large pictures.
West delivered a few addresses to the students of the Royal Academy, and published a few letters on public subjects, but they were of little merit. This was partly due to want of education, for he could scarcely write a sentence without faults of spelling and grammar. It is somewhat difficult to understand the great reputation achieved by West in his lifetime, for the tameness of his ‘historical’ and ‘biblical’ pictures is unredeemed by any beauty of colour or execution; but it must be remembered that he was regarded as the founder of historical painting in England, and he had no serious rival (except Benjamin Robert Haydon [q. v.]) in this class of art. The patronage of the king certainly gave him position, but the artists and connoisseurs of the day, and the critics also, with few exceptions, like ‘Peter Pindar’ and ‘Antony Pasquin,’ were loud in his praise. Sir Thomas Lawrence, in an address to the students of the Royal Academy in 1823, spoke of his compositions ‘as far surpassing contemporary merit on the continent, and as unequalled at any period below the schools of the Caracci.’ His chief claim to remembrance is nevertheless his ‘Death of Wolfe,’ by which he effected a much-needed revolution in modern art.
A full-length portrait by Lawrence of West in his painting-room was painted for the Prince of Wales in 1811, and was presented to the National Gallery by William IV in 1836; a copy by C. R. Leslie is in the Boston Athenæum. Another portrait by Lawrence was engraved for the first edition of Cunningham's ‘Lives.’ A portrait by Gainsborough was engraved by Watson in 1785 (Bromley), and one by Falconet was engraved by D. Pariset. His bust was made in 1819 by Chantrey, and the medal already mentioned by George Mills. The Chantrey bust is in the National Portrait Gallery, which also possesses two portraits of West by Gilbert Stuart.
Belonging to the National Gallery are the following pictures by West: ‘Cleombrotus ordered into Banishment by Leonidas II, King of Sparta,’ ‘Pylades and Orestes brought as Victims before Iphigenia,’ ‘Christ healing the Sick in the Temple,’ the ‘Last Supper,’ and the ‘Installation of the Order of the Garter.’ They are not exhibited in Trafalgar Square, but are ‘on loan’ to museums in the provinces. At Hampton Court are ‘The Death of Bayard,’ ‘The Oath of Hannibal,’ ‘Germanicus and the Wife of Arminius,’ ‘St. Peter denying Christ,’ ‘Cyrus liberating the Family of Astyages,’ ‘St. George and the Dragon,’ ‘Romulus leaving Rome,’ and eight royal portraits.
The elder of West's two sons, Raphael Lamar West (1769–1850), followed his father's profession with some success. He painted ‘Orlando and Oliver’ for Boydell's ‘Shakespeare Gallery,’ and designed a frontispiece for Leigh Hunt's ‘Juvenilia.’ According to Leslie he had more talent than industry. He died at Bushey Heath on 22 May 1850.
[John Galt's Life and Studies of Benjamin West, 2 vols., 1820; The Progress of Genius (an abridgment of Galt's biography), 1832; Dunlap's Hist. of the Arts of Design in the United States, New York, 1834, i. 33–97; Cunningham's Lives, ed. Heaton; Nollekens and his Times; Gent. Mag. 1830, i. 132, ii. 579; Ann. Reg. 1820; Redgraves' Century; Redgrave's Dict.; Bryan's Dict., ed. Armstrong; Appleton's Cyclopædia of American Biogr., with vignette after portrait by George H. Harlow; Pye's Patronage of British Art; Pilkington's Dict. 1840; Catalogues of Soc. of Artists and Royal Acad.; Smith's Friends' Books; Pennsylvania Mag. xviii. 219–22, xix. 461–2; Smith's Hist. of Delaware County, Philadelphia, 1862; Sandby's Hist. of the Royal Academy.]