Tuesday, June 2, 2015

June 2015 Newsletter: A humble colonial artist becomes the King’s favorite

It appears that every article I’m writing these days about the early American artists seems to be even more surprising than the last. In May, I covered John Singleton Copely who was an amazing artist, offering a fresh, new style. This month, we’re going to look at another awe-inspiring artist whose accomplishments seemed endless: Benjamin West (1738-1820)
Self-portrait 1763

A contemporary of Copley (the same age), Benjamin West was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania. He was the youngest of ten children to an innkeeper. When he was around six years of age, the family moved to Newton, Pa. His father became the proprietor of the Square Tavern, which still stands today.  Both his parents hailed from England: his father from London, his mother from Oxford.

While mostly self-taught, West did get some instruction from John Wollaston, a Londoner who specialized in portraits and was famous for giving all his subjects almond-shaped eyes (all the rage then). In the beginning, West mostly worked in portraits. In the mid-1700s, he gained patrons who furthered his career and offered him influential contacts. One of those patrons assisted him financially so that he could study in Italy for three years.

Those years in Italy were significant in his growth as an artist. He not only studied and copied the great masters, but he learned and became well-accomplished in neo-classicism—a revival of interest in the Roman and Greek classical era.  One of his first paintings that he completed after leaving Italy and settling in England was Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia (1766). 

Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia (1766)
Immediately one can see in this painting his inspiration from the classics. Not bad for a guy whose humble beginnings included learning how to make paints from the natives in Pennsylvania as a child.

Instead of going back to the colonies, West decided to stay in England where he was to have an astounding art career. He first settled in Bath and then Reading where he stayed with his half-brother (West’s father’s first wife died at childbirth). West must have had a talent for meeting the right people at the right time because within a short period, he was making some great connections in London with super opportunities to paint. That’s the primary reason for staying—he was able to earn a substantial income and as we already know, that wasn’t possible in the colonies. So of course, he wrote his fiancĂ©e in Philadelphia and they were married in a church near London’s Trafalgar Square.

Now when I say that West made connections, I wasn’t referring to a few rich families. He actually was patronized by King George III. They eventually became “friends,” throwing around the idea of creating an art academy someday, which West eventually did, co-founding the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768.  By the early 70s, he was named the official historical painter for the court with an annual salary of £1000. Among his many paintings executed for the king, nine were portraits of the royal family and two of the king and Edward III.

In time though, West was known for his large historical painting with expressive people, colors and strong compositions.  One of his most famous historical paintings was The Death of General Wolfe (1770), which depicted  the Seven-Years War between the French and English over the control of Canada. Wolfe had won the battle but unfortunately was wounded and died on the Plains of Abraham near Quebec City. 
The Death of General Wolfe  1770

What sets this neo-classic painting apart from others at the time was that West painted everyone in contemporary clothing. Most neo-classic painters dressed everyone in classical costumes, such as togas, even if the subject was current history. Totally makes sense to me to use present-day clothes for a present-day painting.
Detail from The Death of General Wolfe
The other noteworthy item in this painting is the way Wolfe is positioned, just like Jesus Christ at the base of the cross. In the painting, the stage is set with many people surrounding Wolfe. But in reality there was only Lieutenant Henry Browne, the man holding the British flag who was present at Wolfe’s death.

Benjamin West was rather famous with his fellow colonists. He befriended Benjamin Franklin while he was in England. They became such good friends that Franklin was to be the godparent to West’s second born. West was also a major influence on American artists, holding workshops for visiting artists from the colonies throughout the years. It is said that he taught three generations worth of artists, including John Single Copley, Gilbert Stuart, William Pratt, John Turnball, among others.

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity
from the Sky
 c. 1816 
Apparently, the relationship with the king began to sour when West sympathized with France and Napoleon. This is surprising as West never hid the fact that he was in favor of his fellow colonists and their desire to break away from England. But considering all the bad blood between France and England, I suppose it was too much for the king to have the court artist exhibiting his work in Paris. The end came in 1801 and thus concluded West’s royal gig.

As stated above, his other major accomplishment was his co-founding of the Royal Academy of the Arts.  He became president in 1792, serving in that position twice. He was a man of many accomplishments and talents. Just an incredible individual.

West died in his home in 1820 and is buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, England.

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