The son of an innkeeper from the American hinterland, who conquered the British capital with his unique talent as a painter
Benjamin West is a famous American artist of the second half of the 18th early 19th centuries, an outstanding representative of neoclassicism. Benjamin West was a brilliant master of historical and religious painting, and also painted many portraits of his contemporaries. His work was highly appreciated both in his homeland and in Europe, and the best paintings of the painter today are kept in museums in the USA, Canada and Great Britain. The master’s biography is an example of the dizzying career of a self-taught artist who achieved success thanks to his hard work and talent.
Benjamin West was also a brilliant mentor and spent a lot of time educating young artists. His students include many famous painters, including Ralph Earl, Gilbert Stuart, Matthew Pratt and John Trumbull.
Benjamin West biography
Benjamin West was born on October 10, 1738 in Springfield Township, located on the east coast of the United States near Philadelphia. He was the tenth child in the family of the inn owner and from early childhood he was fond of drawing. Unfortunately, the parents could not give their son a decent education, Benjamin never went to school and he had to learn to write, read and draw on his own.
But already at the age of eight, the boy began to create portraits, and he personally made paint for paintings, mixing bear fat with multi-colored clay found on the banks of the river. Little Ben learned this recipe from local Indians and often used it without being able to buy real paints.
In 1756, Benjamin West accidentally met the gunsmith William Henry, who invited the young man to paint the painting “Death of Socrates” on the basis of an old engraving. The young artist brilliantly performed a difficult task, and the rector of Philadelphia College, the Reverend William Smith, soon learned about it. An influential priest decided to help the young man and introduced him to the local wealthy William Allen, who for many years became the artist’s patron.
The artist paints portraits
With the assistance of Smith and Allen, Benjamin West first moved to New York, where he made a living by painting portraits for several years, and then, in 1760, left on a steamer to Italy. For three years, the young artist traveled around this country, visited Rome, Venice, Florence, Siena and many other centers of Italian fine art. He was enthusiastically engaged in making copies of paintings by old masters of painting and achieved significant success in this matter.
In 1763 West left for London, from where he planned to return to America in a month. But in the capital of the British Empire, he met Joshua Reynolds, and this meeting changed the artist’s plans. Benjamin and Joshua became close friends, despite the fact that Reynolds was 15 years older than his colleague. On the advice of a friend, West stayed in London, rented an apartment near the center and started painting.
Thanks to a successful acquaintance and obvious talent, the young artist quickly gained fame in the local community and acquired wealthy customers. Together with his friend Benjamin West took an active part in the creation of the British Academy of Arts, and in the circles of the London elite earned the honorary nickname “American Raphael” for the high level of skill in the creation of works of a religious genre.
In 1772 West was appointed Royal Historical Artist at the court of George III.
In occupying this honorary position, the painter received a substantial salary, and his duties included writing paintings glorifying the monarchy. It was the large-scale masterpieces of the historical genre that brought the master wide popularity throughout Europe.
Having settled in London, Benjamin West always helped young American artists who visited England. He invited them to his workshop, shared his own experience and knowledge, and also provided material support to his fellow countrymen. When the American Revolution began in 1775, the painter took a completely neutral position and did not support either side. This allowed him to subsequently maintain good relations with both American and British friends.
In 1792, after the death of Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin West was appointed the second president of the Academy of Arts, a position he held for nearly 30 years. For services to the monarchy, the king bestowed the title of knight on the master, but he refused the high rank.
In the late period of his creative work, the artist painted pictures of a religious genre. He enthusiastically engaged in painting until his last days, but the time was inexorable. On March 11, 1820, Benjamin West passed into eternity in his London mansion. He was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, next to the tombs of other great sons of the British Empire, and this honor has never been awarded to any American native.
The most famous paintings by Benjamin West
The brilliant painter gave his descendants many unique masterpieces. And yet, the most famous paintings by Benjamin West are considered to be:
- The Death of General Wolfe (1770) is a work that at one time caused a lot of negative reviews, but was later recognized as an outstanding masterpiece. Contrary to generally accepted rules, the author portrayed the heroes not in ancient Roman clothes, but in military uniform, which caused the displeasure of adherents of neoclassical art.
- The Battle of the Slaughter (1778) is a painting praising the victory of Protestant England under the leadership of William III of Orange over Catholic Ireland. The British monarch is depicted on it in front of his army on a white horse at the moment of a decisive attack.
- Death of Nelson (1806) is a masterpiece that colorfully depicts the heroic death of the famous British admiral during the Battle of Trafalgar. According to legend, Nelson, delighted with West’s skill, shortly before his death expressed a desire to become the hero of another painting by the master, and the artist fulfilled his will.
- Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky (1816) is a painting depicting one of the founders of the United States during a dangerous experiment with electricity. The painter was friends with Franklin for many years, and in addition to this picture, he painted a number of his portraits.
Benjamin West was a unique American painter, who is rightfully considered by the British as their national painter. He achieved tremendous success in his professional career only thanks to his innate talent and hard work, despite a difficult childhood and lack of academic education.
Kleombrotos sent into exile by Leonidas II, 1768. Tate Gallery, London