Benjamin West

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West, Benjamin,

1738–1820, American historical painter who worked in England. He was born in Springfield, Pa., in a house that is now a memorial museum at Swarthmore College. After some instruction from a local artist named William Williams, he set up as a portrait painter in Philadelphia at 18, subsequently moving to New York City. In 1760 he went to Europe, where he remained for the rest of his life. For three years he studied in Italy. Working under the tutelage of Anton Mengs, he was also inspired by the classical research of Johann Winckelmann. He then settled in London, becoming a leader of the neoclassical movement. Under the patronage of George III, commissions came to him in great numbers, and in 1772 he was appointed historical painter to the king. A founder of the Royal Academy, he succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as its president in 1792. West executed more than 400 canvases, chiefly historical, mythological, and religious subjects painted on a heroic scale. He had many pupils and was a generous friend and adviser to younger artists, particularly American painters studying in England, among whom were Washington Allston, Samuel Morse, Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, and John Singleton Copley. His influence on American painting of the period was predominant. Among West's best-known works are Death of General Wolfe (Grosvenor Gall., London) and Penn's Treaty with the Indians (Pa. Acad. of the Fine Arts). In these paintings he created a new departure in historical painting by clothing his figures in the costume of their period instead of the traditional classical garb. At the same time, he maintained the balanced compositional elements of the neoclassical painters. Sometimes his paintings were more turbulent and colorful and indeed prefigured romanticism, such as Death on a Pale Horse (Pa. Acad. of the Fine Arts).


See study by H. Von Erffa and A. Staley (1986).

West, Benjamin


Born Oct. 10, 1738, in Springfield, Pa.; died Mar. 11, 1820, in London. American painter.

West first worked in Philadelphia and New York as a water-color painter, graphic artist, and portrait painter. From 1760 to 1763 he traveled in Italy. After 1763 he worked permanently in London; in 1792 he became president of the Royal Academy of Arts. West’s portraits, especially his early ones, often combine traditional stylization with realism. His thematic compositions are academic in spirit, but a number of his historical paintings, for example, Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1772, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia), are marked by a historically accurate rendering of costume and setting.


Evans, G. Benjamin West and the Taste of His Times. Carbondale, 1959.

West, Benjamin

(1738–1820) painter, teacher; born in Springfield, Pa. He painted portraits in Philadelphia (1756), traveled to Rome (1759–62), where he was influenced by the classical German painter Anton Mengs, then settled in London (1763). There he became a charter member of the Royal Academy (1768; president in 1792), and was appointed historical painter to George III (1772). Death of Wolfe (1771), his depiction of Gen. James Wolfe in the siege of Quebec during the French and Indian Wars, brought him fame. Throughout his long career in London he promoted and taught visiting American artists, such as Matthew Pratt, Charles W. Peale, Gilbert Stuart, S. F. B. Morse, Washington Allston and Thomas Sully. Later West's historical subjects waned in popularity, but his allegorical Death on a Pale Horse (1802) influenced the emerging French school of romantic painting.