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Feature Archive
July, 2002
Celebrating Heroes
Celebrating Benjamin West
By Joseph Phelan
I recently moved to Washington D.C. from Toronto, Canada. One of the things I will miss about that gracious and cosmopolitan city is the great research library of the University of Toronto. Washington has even more impressive research facilities to be sure, including the greatest library in the world, but neither the Library of Congress nor the Library of the National Gallery of Art is as easy to use. Neither allows patrons to check out books. Nor are either of them open today. So as I sit here on a sizzlingly hot July 4th in the nation's capital I turn to the resources available to me and to all of you who have access to the Internet. How wonderfully democratic!

Today I'm celebrating the founding father of American painting, Benjamin West, who was born in colonial Pennsylvania 264 years ago and who became the most influential painter in the English speaking world during the later part of the 18th century. West's astonishing accomplishments include being the court painter to the British monarch George III, a founder and president of the Royal Academy of the Arts, and teacher and mentor to three generations of American artists studying in London, including John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), John Trumbull (1756-1843), Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) and Washington Allston (1779-1843).

West was the most influential history painter in the English speaking world at a time when history painting was considered the highest accomplishment at which a painter could aim. The importance of history painting in the cultural life of the past is a subject that we need to better understand. History paintings celebrated heroes. These works remind us what heroes are and why we need them. Beginning in the 18th century, when governments were becoming aware that their primary goal was to keep the nation free and prosperous, artists were commissioned to portray those indispensable men and women who made the extreme sacrifices and performed the noble deeds that kept nations that way.

Benjamin West is considered one of the leading exponents of "Neo-Classicism". (For a quick definition of that concept, click here.) But the real learning experience comes when you start looking at West's paintings, as well as those of the other major Neo-Classicists two of whom West met and studied with when he made his visit to Italy: Gavin Hamilton and Anton Raphael Mengs. What is most important about Neo-Classicism often gets left out: it celebrates heroic virtue. Beginning with Pylades and Orestes (1766), his first major work completed in Italy, West turned to the plays and poems of the classical Greek and Roman authors for his subjects. In this case, it's worth noting that the real hero of the painting is Iphegniena, the sister of Orestes who decides to sacrifice her life to save her brother and his friend from the family curse.

I have been interested in Benjamin West since I first saw his most famous painting, The Death of General Wolfe (1771), at the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa. General Wolfe was the hero of the great war between the French and the English for control of Canada. He died on the Plains of Abraham near Quebec City after winning the decisive victory for the English. West was already a successful painter in London and a favorite of the King when we began this work. Yet he broke with precedent in two ways: for the first time a recent historical event is the subject of a history painting and the participants are portrayed in contemporary (as opposed to classical) dress. In the composition the figure of the dying English hero recalls Christ in the great pietas of the past even as the noble savage reminds of the classical nudes of the Greeks and Romans. So West brings together the celebration of a heroic event from recent history with the great artistic templates of the Renaissance and the Baroque period to create this tour de force. Other important works by West in this manner are The Death of the Earl of Chatham (1778) and The Battle of La Hogue (1778).

The fertile imaginative mind of West took one more extraordinary turn. He was not only one of the great figures in development of history painting and Neo-Classicism. Towards the end of the century, he read an influential treatise on the Sublime by Edmund Burke. West began to rethink color, composition and theme. If you want to awe someone you have to paint the awesome. West used a passage from the Apocalypse for inspiration when during the French Revolution he painted Death on a Pale Horse, which is surely the one of the great paintings about the consequences of war. It is also the beginning of Romanticism in painting prefiguring the canvases of Delacroix and others.

You don't have to go any further than this website to see the works of Benjamin West and to learn about this great period in painting. If you click on Benjamin West's page you see the following uniquely useful features:

1. Artist's Name, School, and Dates.

2. Relationships. This is a cool and relatively new feature which connects the artist with those he influenced or was influenced by. In the case of Benjamin West who was the teacher and mentor of three generations of American painters studying in London, we have thirteen students of West each of whom is cross-indexed wit h his own page. This is an invaluable tool for students since it gives them a sense of the interconnectedness of art history. It also a excellent source of research ideas for teachers and students.

3. Paintings in Museums. This is the heart of Artcyclopedia: direct links to a online museum exhibits. West was a prodigious talent and producer of paintings. I was astonished to see that many of the paintings I found online were parts of a great project which King George commissioned during the height of the English Enlightenment called "The History of Revealed Religion". This grand project of 32 paintings was to decorate the King's private chapel at Windsor Palace. After twenty years, the King abruptly cancelled the project and the paintings remained with West. Examples online include The Sepulchre (1782), The Expulsion of Adam and Eve (1791), The Baptism of Our Savior (C.1794), and Pharaoh and His Host Lost in the Red Sea (1792).

4. Pictures from Image Galleries. "Virtual museums" like the WebMuseum and the Web Gallery of Art are invaluable sources of images and information on painters and painting which may not be online anywhere else.

This article is copyrighted 2002. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.

Joseph Phelan can be contacted at joe.phelan@verizon.net

Past Articles

June, 2002
      Chasing the Red Deer into the American Sublime (Education and the Art Museum, Part II), by Joseph Phelan

May, 2002
      Planning Your Summer Vacation, by Joseph Phelan

March, 2002
      Education and the Art Museum, Part I, by Joseph Phelan

February, 2002
      Unsung Griots of American Painting, by Joseph Phelan

January, 2002
      The British Museum COMPASS Project, interview by Joseph Phelan
      Robert Hughes, Time Magazine Art Critic: Biography and Writings
      Lifestyle: Online Casinos Finally Get Real

December, 2001
      Advent Calendar 2001, narrated by Joseph Phelan
      Software review: Le Louvre: The Virtual Visit on DVD-ROM, by Joseph Phelan

November, 2001
      Tragedy and Triumph at Arles: Van Gogh and Gauguin, by Joseph Phelan

October, 2001
      Her Last Bow: Sister Wendy in America, by Joseph Phelan

September, 2001
      Love, Death and Resurrection: The Paintings of Stanley Spencer, by Joseph Phelan

August, 2001
      Who is Rodin's Thinker?, by Joseph Phelan

July, 2001
      Celebrations North and South, by Joseph Phelan

June, 2001
      Rubens and his Age, by Joseph Phelan

May, 2001
      Great Reproductions of Great Paintings

April, 2001
      The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan

March, 2001
      Edouard Manet: Public Spaces, Private Dreams, by Joseph Phelan

February, 2001
      Henry Moore and the British Museum: The Great Conversation, by Joseph Phelan

December, 2000
      Advent Calendar 2000, narrated by Joseph Phelan

November, 2000
      Article: Notorious Portraits, Part II, by John Malyon

October, 2000
      Article: Notorious Portraits, Part I, by John Malyon
      Article: The Other Michelangelo, by Joseph Phelan

September, 2000
      Article: The Art of Drawing, by Joseph Phelan

August, 2000
      Article: Poussin and the Heroic Landscape, by Joseph Phelan

July, 2000
      Article: Great Art Museums Online, by Joseph Phelan

June, 2000
      Article: Venetian Painting and the Rise of Landscape, by Joseph Phelan

May, 2000
      Article: Forbidden Visions: Mythology in Art, by Joseph Phelan

April, 2000
      Article: Themes in Art: The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      Web site review: Christus Rex

March, 2000
      Web site review: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., by Joseph Phelan
      Online exhibit review: Inuit Art: The World Around Me, by John Malyon

February, 2000/Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Results)

January, 2000/Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part II)

December, 1999/Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part I)

November, 1999/The Louvre Museum
      Web site review: The Louvre

October, 1999/Impressionism
      Web site review: North Carolina Museum of Art

September, 1999/Optical Art
      Web site review: The Butler Institute of American Art

August, 1999/Animals in Art
      Web site review: National Museum of Wildlife Art
      Online exhibit review: PBS: American Visions

July, 1999/Surrealism

June, 1999/Sculpture
      Web site review: Carol Gerten's Fine Art
      Online exhibit review: Michael Lucero: Sculpture 1976-1995

May, 1999/Women in the Arts
      Web site review: National Museum of Women in the Arts
      Online exhibit review: Jenny Holzer: Please Change Beliefs

April, 1999/The Golden Age of Illustration
      Web site review: Fine Arts Museums Of San Francisco
      Online exhibit review: Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe online

March, 1999/Vincent van Gogh
      Web site review: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
      Web site review: The Vincent van Gogh Information Gallery

February, 1999/Great Art
      Web site review: The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
      Online exhibit review: John Singleton Copley: Watson and the Shark