Benjamin West, PRA FRSA (* 10 October 1738 in Springfield, Province of Pennsylvania; † 11 March 1820 in London) was one of the first internationally important American painters.
He received his first training in his homeland and earned his living with portrait paintings.
With financial support from William Smith and William Allen, who was the richest man in Philadelphia, West travelled to Italy in 1760 and lived mainly in Rome. He copied the paintings of the great masters Titian and Raphael. Here he met Raphael Mengs, Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Gavin Hamilton.
In 1763 he moved to London. In 1768 he participated in the foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts.
In 1792, the first president of the Academy, Joshua Reynolds, died. Benjamin West succeeded him and remained president of the Royal Academy of Arts until the end of his life (1820).
West produced classicist history paintings that are among the earliest of their kind in English art history. His painting The Death of General James Wolfe at Quebec (1770), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771, made him internationally famous. According to an anecdote, West asked the president of the Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, for advice. Reynolds had advised a depiction in ancient garb and pose, which West rejected: "The event which I wish to record in my picture took place on 13 September 1759, in a part of the world unknown to the Greeks and Romans, and at a time when there were neither any of those nations nor heroes in ancient garb on this earth.... I desire to give an accurate account of the date, the place, and the parties concerned in this event." Despite the depiction from a strictly contemporary point of view, the composition of the picture remained conventionally rooted in the Christian tradition of the depiction of the Pieta or the Descent from the Cross. The exotic reference was created by an Indian depiction. The success was perhaps overwhelming for this very reason. The stream of visitors to the Royal Academie did not stop. An engraving based on the painting was sold in large numbers in a very short time.
King George III commissioned West to paint portraits of members of the royal family. For example, he painted Princes Edward and William and the elder children of William Duke of Gloucester, brother of King George III, Prince William, with his elder sister, Princess Sophia of Gloucester. The King also had himself painted twice by West.
In 1772 King George appointed West as History Painter to the Court with an annual salary of £1000.
In 1791 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. From 1791 until his death he was overseer of the royal paintings.
West is known for his large-scale historical paintings, with expressive figures, colours and a compositional scheme that helps the viewer identify the scene depicted. West called this "epic representation".
Benjamin Best created the painting "Christ with a Child in Heaven" for Johann Caspar Lavater. The contact with Lavater had come about through the Swiss preacher Johann Heinrich Sulger, who lived in London. Despite an enthusiastic reception, West only delivered a few smaller works or engravings to Lavater.
There are several altarpieces by him in the court chapel at Windsor. He produced the cartoons for the window paintings, which Forest executed from 1792 to 1796. For the audience chambers of the castle he created six large paintings by order of King George III, the subjects of which are taken from the history of King Edward III, now united with many other pictures of West in a hall at Hampton Court. An altarpiece in the Hospital Church at Greenwich by West depicts St Paul on Melite hurling the viper from him.
Many American artists studied with him in London, including Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, Thomas Sully and Samuel Morse.
In 1803 West was admitted as an expatriate member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Benjamin West died at his home in Newman Street, London, on 11 March 1820. He was buried in St Paul's Cathedral (painter's corner).
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94 | The Death of General Wolfe (Der Tod von General Wolfe), 1770
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