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Monday, December 23, 2019

Early American Artists: Benjamin West

By J. M. Hochstetler

My last post was about John Trumbull, often called the “Painter of the American Revolution.” In my next few posts I’m going to take a look at several of the most important early American artists. Today we’ll focus on Benjamin West, who received great acclaim while living in London as the “American Raphael” and significantly influenced Trumbull and many other American artists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Birthplace of Benjamin West
West was born on October 10, 1738, the tenth child in a Quaker family in Springfield, Pennsylvania, where his parents ran a small inn in a house that is preserved on the Swarthmore College campus. The family later moved to Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, where his father was the proprietor of the Square Tavern, which still stands. Although the simple Quaker life offered little in the way of art, young Benjamin showed artistic talent early on. One day while his mother was out of the house, he found some pots of ink and drew his little sister Sally’s portrait. When his mother returned she exclaimed, “Why, it’s Sally!” and kissed him. In later years he noted, “My mother’s kiss made me a painter.” His memoir, The Life and Studies of Benjamin West (1816, 1820), relates that Indians taught him how to make paint by mixing clay and bear grease. Although he excelled as an artist, he received little education and admitted that even when he was president of the English Royal Academy he could scarcely spell.

Self Portrait, Benjamin West, 1776
In 1756 West moved to Philadelphia to study painting, and by the time he was 20 he was a successful portrait painter. However, his classical painting Death of Socrates, based on an engraving in Rollin’s Ancient History, but with significant differences from the original, soon brought him to the notice of a wider audience. Considered “the most ambitious and interesting painting produced in colonial America,” it attracted wealthy and politically connected patrons, whose numbers grew throughout his career due to his amiable personality and attractive appearance. He was close friends with Benjamin Franklin and not only painted his portrait, but also later made him godfather to his second son.

West’s trip to Italy in 1760 to further his art training was financed by several patrons. In 1763, on his way home to America, he stopped off in London, where he showed his paintings of historical scenes in the new neoclassical style to great public acclaim, including from King George III. His American patrons advised him to stay in London, and he did so, moving into a house in Bedford Street, Covent Garden, and in 1765 marrying Elizabeth Shewell, a fellow American.

Death of General Wolfe
West became best known for his large-scale historical paintings using expressive figures, colors and compositions, which he called “epic representation.” His most famous painting, The Death of General Wolfe (1770) in which the Wolfe is depicted wearing period-correct uniform rather than traditional classical robes, was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1771 and became one of the most frequently reproduced images of the period. As a result of the acclaim and controversy it inspired, West was appointed historical painter to the king in 1772 at an annual fee of £1,000 and was given a residence and studio at Windsor Castle.

West’s personality and good looks continued to make him a favorite in society and held the king’s confidence throughout the turmoil of the American Revolution. The two men were quickly on intimate terms, often discussing the state of art in England and the establishment of a Royal Academy of Arts, which became a reality in 1768, with the famous artist Sir Joshua Reynolds as its first president. Among the many paintings West completed are nine portraits of members of the royal family, including two of the king. He was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Pictures in 1791, a position he held for the rest of his life. On Reynolds’ death in 1792, West was elected president of the Royal Academy of Arts and held that position, except for one year, until his own death at his house in Newman Street, London, on March 11, 1820. He was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Joshua passing the River Jordan
with the Ark of the Covenant, 1800
West maintained that, “Art is the representation of human beauty, ideally perfect in design, graceful and noble in attitude.” Yet his paintings are not the only reason for his important place in American art. He acted as counselor, teacher, and friend to three generations of American artists who came to England to study under him, providing them advice, instruction, food, money and even jobs as studio assistants as needed. His collection of artworks of the old masters and casts of classical sculptures offered a gallery they could study when no comparable public collection existed. Three generations of American artists traveled abroad to study under him, among them John Trumbull, Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale, and John Singleton Copley. His influence on the development of art in America was extensive, and he was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1791.

Do you think the visual arts are important in culture and society? How and why? Please share your thoughts!
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is a professional editor, a publisher, and the author of award-winning historical fiction whose books have been endorsed by bestselling authors such as Lori Benton, Laura Frantz, and Jocelyn Green. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Book 6, Refiner’s Fire, released in 2019. She is also the author of One Holy Night, the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year, and co-authored the award-winning Northkill Amish Series with Bob Hostetler.


  1. Thank you so much for this series, Joan...I'm not the only would-be artist out there who will enjoy it!


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