Wednesday, February 15, 2017

18C Women by American Benjamin West 1738-1820

Benjamin West was the 10th child of a rural innkeeper in Springfield, Pennsylvania, in October, 1738, and died exaulted in London, in March, 1820. Before his ascension to historical allegory painter for English royalty, he began learning his craft as a humble portraitist in Philadelphia. West told John Galt, his biographer, that when he was a child, Native Americans showed him how to make paint by mixing some clay from the river bank with bear grease in a pot.


c 1760 Benjamin West (1738-1820). Anne Allen (later Mrs. John Penn). John Penn (1729-1795) was the last governor of colonial Pennsylvania, serving from 1763-1771 & 1773-1776, & he was a grandson of William Penn. Thos portrait of the daughter of West's benefactor Chief Justice William Allen may have been painted as West was traveling from Pennsylvania to Italy & then to England.

During his years painting in the British American colonies, his portraits exhibit a modest attempt to emulate the baroque & rococo styles, which he probably observed in Philadelphia in the works of English emigrant William Williams (1727–1791), American itinerant artist Robert Feke (1707–1751), visiting English rococo portraitist John Wollaston (1733-1767), and the immigrant Swedish native Gustavus Hesselius (1682–1755) plus his son John Hesselius (1728–1778). His modest American portrait compositions also exhibit some knowledge of English mezzotint portraits reflecting the works of Peter Lely (1618–160) and Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723). West told a friend that a "Mr. Hide (Haidt), a German, gave him instruction. Johann Valentine Haidt (1700-1780), a Moravian evangelist & trained painter, painted not just portraits, but also history & religious paintings. Apparently, Benjamin West became determined to paint inspiring historical & religious compositions as well.

He later wrote, "Most undoubtedly had not (I) been settled in Philadelphia I should not have embraced painting as a profession." However, his early move away from Philadelphia to England was necessary for him to work in a country where artists were commissioned to paint inspiring depictions of history's real & imagined indispensable men and women who made extreme sacrifices and performed noble deeds. In the American colonies, the gentry paid for portraits, not inspiration from religion. mythology, or historical events. In 1760, encouraged by the provost of the College of Philadelphia William Smith, Pennsylvania Chief Justice William Allen sponsored Benjamin West's trip to Italy, giving him a £100 line of credit and a letter of introduction calling him "a young ingenious Painter of this City, who is desirous to improve himself in that Science, by visiting Florence & Rome." A year later Allen and his brother-in-law, Pennsylvania Governor James Hamilton, provided more money for West. West referred to Allen as "the principal of my patrons."

During his 22 years in America, he was a fairly typical provincial artist; but his choice to leave the colonies in 1760, for Europe & England led to his appointment as the official painter at the court of King George III & to his becoming co-founder of the Royal Academy in London, where 3 generations of fellow American students would return home from his tutelage to impact the art of the emerging republic. His students included Joseph Wright (1756-1793), Ralph Earl (1751-1801), Matthew Pratt (1734-1805), Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), John Trumbull (1756-1843), Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), and Washington Allston (1779-1843). And, of course, he taught Bostonian John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), who chose never to return to his homeland.


1755 Benjamin West (1738-1820). Mary Bethel (Mrs. Samuel Boude)

1756 Benjamin West (1738-1820). Sarah Ursula Rose

1759 Benjamin West (1738-1820). Jane Galloway (1745-1801)