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 Benjamin West  (1738 - 1820)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania / United Kingdom/England      Known for: history, allegorical, religious and portrait paintings

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
America's most famous successful expatriate painter and described as the "father of American painting" (Zellman, 55) Benjamin West became the first American artist to gain international fame.  He was known for his large-scale and realistic historical genre paintings.

West was born near Springfield, Pennsylvania, near the future location of Swathmore College.  Supposedly, he first learned pigment making from local Indians.  William Williams, an English portrait painter living in Philadelphia, was probably his first teacher.

West's father was an innkeeper, and as a youngster, West began sketching many of the people who passed through his home.  As a teenager, he was painting portraits in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and by age 20, had finished his first history painting, The Death of Socrates.

Sensing his exceptional talent, a group of local persons raised money to send him abroad with the goal of making him America's first professional painter.

From 1760 to 1763, West traveled in Italy, becoming imbued with classical taste.  He aroused much public attention and surprise among those who had expected the American to look like a savage and found instead, a cultured-seeming gentleman.  In Italy, he painted scenes from the classics and the Bible.

In 1763, he set up as a portrait painter in London, and from that time lived abroad.  He was regarded as an American exotic, a role he cultivated.  During his residency in London, he influenced a generation of American painters including Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully and Rembrandt Peale.  He also became a confidante and official historical painter to King George III, a unique position during the American Revolution.

In 1771, West revolutionized history painting with his Death of General Wolfe, showing soldiers in the Battle of Quebec in actual dress, a break from the prescribed classical garb of traditional painting.

In 1772, he was instrumental in the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts in London and later became its President.

Sources:
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art

Biography from Metropolitan Museum of Art:
Benjamin West's influence on the course of American painting was enormous, and it is certain that without him the achievements of most of the major American artists of the time would not have been possible. Born on October 10, 1738, near Springfield, Pennsylvania, West manifested a talent for painting at an early age, and was encouraged to draw by his parents. By the age of fifteen he was something of a local celebrity for his portraits, and by 1756 he had attracted the attention of Dr. William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia, who enrolled him in his school and devised a special program in classical learning for him. His lessons in antiquity fueled his determination to become a history painter, and in 1760 he sailed for Italy on a journey that would lead him to the pinnacle of artistic success.

The first American artist to study in Italy, West painted assiduously and embraced the embryonic Neoclassical movement then developing over all of Europe. He met the right people—the antiquities scholar Cardinal Albani, the painter Anton Raphael Mengs, the historical genius Gavin Hamilton, among others—and, by the time he reached London in 1763, was steeped in the newest artistic trends. His ability, ambition, modernity, willingness to experiment, and social skills earned him widespread patronage. West met King George III, who appointed him a charter member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 and by 1772 made him his historical painter.

West's position at the top of the hierarchy of British painters, once achieved through proximity to the king and his own grand historical tableau, was never in question. But although he painted competitively and successfully, his greatest studio productions were his many students.

He fondly remembered his American upbringing and kept an open-door policy for American artists traveling abroad, providing them not only with a place to stay, but studio instruction, entrée into galleries and collections, and access to the Royal Academy. His first student was his friend Matthew Pratt, who came to London as an escort to West's fiancée Elizabeth Shewell. Pratt produced his now-famous conversation piece, The American School (97.29.3), both in homage to West and in order to make public his intention to achieve artistic independence: he portrayed himself as a painter in a studio of younger students still at their drawing boards. ??

The artists that followed in and out of West's studio comprise a who's who of American painting: Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, Ralph Earl, Washington Allston, Thomas Sully, Samuel F. B. Morse, and many others. Peale arrived at West's studio in 1767 and remained for two years, primarily painting miniatures for his livelihood and admiring his master's grand-scale historical works, while eschewing the sophisticated painterliness of the English manner. Working together under West's tutelage, the extraordinarily talented painters Stuart and Trumbull alternately praised and ridiculed their teacher. Allston stayed but a moment, accepting West's hospitality as a means of grounding himself for subsequent studies in Italy.

Sully and Morse caught West in his declining years, when as president of the Royal Academy he could offer his American students easy access to study at the schools and fatherly guidance toward the finest English artists of the day. Sully returned to America grateful to West, but painting in the manner of Sir Thomas Lawrence, and his colleague Morse took West's encouragement of his historical works to heart, never giving up his ambition to paint large, multifigure compositions even when forced into portraiture by the exigencies of the American nineteenth-century market.

West died in 1820, leaving a legacy not only of his own strong historical works, but perhaps more importantly, a following of painters who represented his training and counsel through the nineteenth century.

By Carrie Rebora Barratt
Department of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Citation
Barratt, Carrie Rebora. "Students of Benjamin West (1738–1820)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bwst/hd_bwst.htm (October 2004)

Further Reading
Erffa, Helmut von, and Allen Staley. The Paintings of Benjamin West. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
Evans, Dorinda. Benjamin West and His American Students. Exhibition catalogue. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980.


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Benjamin West is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
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Paris Pre 1900

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