Celebrating Benjamin West
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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