The biography of Benjamin West (1738 - 1820)

Benjamin West (1738–1820) was an Anglo-American painter of historical, religious, and mythological subjects around and after the time of the American War of Independence. West was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin, whose portrait he painted. He had a profound influence on the development of historical painting in Britain, being one of the first American artists to win a wide reputation in Europe

West was born October 10, 1738, in Springfield (now Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, in a house that is now on the campus of Swarthmore College. He was the tenth child of a Quaker innkeeper. The family later moved to Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, where his father was the proprietor of the Square Tavern.

Benjamin West was a talented drawer. For a time West studied in Philadelphia and New York City. From 1746 to 1759, West worked in Pennsylvania, mostly painting portraits. He also served as a militia captain in Indian campaigns in Pennsylvania.

In 1760, West traveled to Italy and acquired a classical style of painting by copying the works of such Italian masters as Titian and Raphael. He lived there for three years before settling in London.

In 1763, West moved to England and remained there for life. Known in London as “the American Raphael”, he became a friend of the English leading portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was commissioned by King George III to create portraits of members of the royal family. He painted his most famous and possibly most influential painting, The Death of General Wolfe, in 1770, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771. The king himself was twice painted by him. In 1772, King George appointed him historical painter to the court at an annual fee of £1,000.

With Reynolds, West founded the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. While excelling at the arts, he had little formal education and, even when president of the Royal Academy, could scarcely spell. He was the second president of the Royal Academy from 1792 to 1805. He was re-elected in 1806 and was president until his death in 1820. He was Surveyor of the King’s Pictures from 1791 until his death.

West is known for his large scale history paintings, which use expressive figures, colours and compositional schemes to help the spectator to identify with the scene represented. West called this “epic representation”.

Among his famous works are Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1768); The Death of General Wolfe (1771), the controversial painting in which he broke away from classical costumes; Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1772); and Death on a Pale Horse (1817), which anticipated developments in French romantic painting.

West died on March 11, 1820, in London.