American-born Benjamin West was one of the most prominent artists in late eighteenth century London. President of the Royal Academy from 1792 until his death, he received many commissions from George III and other English patrons, and at the same time served as teacher and advisor to three generations of American artists in London. He was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, on October 10, 1738. His earliest paintings were portraits of children, Robert and Jane Morris (c. 1752; Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, Pennsylvania). His exceptional talent was quickly recognized, and he painted portraits in eastern Pennsylvania and New York City (briefly), influenced by the work of John Valentine Haidt, William Williams, and John Wollaston. He went to Italy in 1760 to continue his study of painting and after three years, spent primarily in Rome, Florence, and Venice, he settled in London.
West worked primarily as a painter of historical and religious subjects, and as a portrait painter as patronage required. The first pictures he exhibited in London at the Society of Artists in 1764 were subjects from Renaissance literature, and within a few years he painted several classical subjects. George III then commissioned The Departure of Regulus from Rome (1769; Queen Elizabeth II), marking the beginning of royal patronage of West, who painted some sixty pictures for the King between then and 1801.
West is best known for his influential history painting, The Death of General Wolfe (1770; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771. A milestone in English and American art, this was the first major depiction of a contemporary event with figures in modern clothing. Its subject matter was the heroic death of an English general in battle against the French in Canada. Two later paintings with American subjects were Penn's Treaty with the Indians (1771-1772; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia) and the unfinished Signing of the Preliminary Treaty of Peace in 1782 (1783-84; Henry Francis Du Pont Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware).
In the 1770's West subject matter began to include the religious themes that dominated his work of the late 1770's and 1780's. Most notable were his paintings on the progress of Revealed Religion for the Royal Chapel and designs for stained glass for St. Georges Chapel, both at Windsor Castle. Other commissions for Windsor included family portraits and eight paintings from English history for the Audience Chamber. As George III withdrew his support in the 1790s, William Beckford became an important patron, and commissioned religious paintings and portraits for his Gothic Revival country house, Fonthill Abbey. West died in London in 1820.
West during most of his career painted complex multifigure compositions and employed sophisticated glazing techniques that differed dramatically from the painting methods he had learned in Pennsylvania. The extraordinary stylistic and compositional differences between West's American and English work are due very much to his three years of study in Italy, when he absorbed the painting styles and compositions of Italian Renaissance and baroque painters, as well as those of his contemporaries. Later, as West became a pivotal figure in educating American-born artists in England, this knowledge in turn transformed the work of his pupils. Americans who studied with West before and during the Revolution included Matthew Pratt, Charles Willson Peale, and Gilbert Stuart. Among his students in the 1780s were Ralph Earl and John Trumbull. These and later Americans, including Washington Allston and Thomas Sully, brought West's ideas and techniques back to the United States, providing a foundation for the growth of the arts in America in the Federal period and creating a late eighteenth and early nineteenth century American style of considerable sophistication. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Sawitsky, William. "The American Work of Benjamin West." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 62, no. 4 (October 1938): 433-462.
Abrams, Ann Uhry. "A New Light on Benjamin West's Pennsylvania Instruction." Winterthur Portfolio 17 (1982): 243-257.
Von Erffa, Helmut, and Allen Staley. The Paintings of Benjamin West. New Haven and London, 1986.
Benjamin West; American Painter at the English Court. Essay by Allen Staley. Exh. cat. The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1989.
Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 316-317.