How Benjamin West Became the Society Painter


Self-portrait by Benjamin West, original from 1170, copy from 1776. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The American painter Benjamin West lived between two worlds. Born in the 13 American colonies in 1738, West immigrated to London as a young man to pursue his artistic career. He lived through the American Revolution as an expatriate in the mother country.

West’s birth across the pond, however, did not hinder his rapid rise through the artistic ranks. Under the patronage of George III and English aristocrats, he rose to the rank of President of the Royal Academy and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, a Yankee who truly made London his own.

Read on to learn more about West and his artistic career.

A childhood in the American colonies

Benjamin West House

The Benjamin West House in Pennsylvania, drawn in 1837. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, West was the youngest of 10 children. Largely self-taught, the young West showed promise from an early age. In his late teens, he was taking portrait commissions all over Pennsylvania. At 18, he finished his first historical painting, an esteemed and largely unrecognized genus in the American colonies. His wealthy patron, William Henry, had suggested the young man paint the ancient philosopher Socrates. Completed in 1756, The death of Socrates was proof of a revolutionary young painter.

The painting won him the attention of the Philadelphia intelligentsia. While living in the city, the young artist met John Wollaston, an English portrait painter. He learned from Wollaston’s style and skill in painting fabrics.

West’s wealthy connections to the city funded his further education by sending him abroad for a Grand Tour in 1760. The big tour was traditional for young European nobles and budding artists. Traveling, West spent three years learning in Rome, Florence, and Venice to observe the art of the Ancients and Renaissance Old Masters. He would later build on these experiences as a pioneer of the art movement known as Neoclassicism.

Trip to England

West family in London

The West family, by an unknown engraver after 1779. (Photo: Yale University Art Gallery, public domain)

In 1763 West went to London. There his talent for history painting blossomed. He quickly acquired a glowing reputation in artistic and courtly circles. He associated with bishops and literary luminaries such as Dr. Samuel Johnson. He painted Christian and classical scenes while supporting himself with portrait commissions.

It was an exciting time for art in London, as history painting developed as a genre. King George III was also a devoted patron of the arts. In 1769 West handed over his first royal commission, The departure of Regulus.

Portrait of Mary Hopkinson

‘Mary Hopkinson’, by Benjamin West, circa 1764. This portrait was painted from a miniature during West’s early years in London. (Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum, public domain)

The king and the artist turned out to be a match made in artistic heaven. The Royal Academy was founded in 1768, and West would take over as its president in 1792. After his first commission, West became the king’s favorite painter. He delivered 60 works to the monarch during the period between 1768 and 1801. Known as the ‘King’s Historical Painter’ and later ‘King’s Picture Surveyor’, he taught drawing lessons to royal children and painted family members.

Historical paintings

Agrippina landing at Brundisium with the ashes of Germanicus

“Agrippina landing at Brundisium with the ashes of Germanicus”, by Benjamin West, 1768. (Photo: Yale University Art Gallery, public domain)

It was during this period of royal patronage that West produced his most famous work titled The Death of General Wolfe. Painted in 1770 and exhibited the following year, the painting depicts a battle in Quebec, Canada, during the French and Indian War. According to the National Gallery of Art, it is the “first major depiction of a contemporary event with figures dressed in modern clothing”, as opposed to classical costume. The general is the central character of the composition. He dies softly, but heroically, in his scarlet cloak, illuminated as if by a light from above.

Not strictly factual, The Death of General Wolfe had to tell a moral story. Native Americans, humble soldiers and Canadian settlers were all expected to appreciate the general’s bravery and sacrifice. These idealized depictions of history were considered “high art”, nobler than other forms of painting.

Two Officers and a Groom in a Landscape, 1777

“Two Officers and a Groom in a Landscape”, by Benjamin West, 1777. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

History painting was a way to commemorate recent battles, but it could also evoke the classical past, albeit with some factual flexibility. These paintings also demonstrated ideal characteristics such as loyalty and bravery.

West’s work of 1768 Agrippina landing at Brundisium with the ashes of Germanicus depicts the return of a bereaved widow to Rome to confront the Emperor, the alleged murderer of her husband. The central female figure embodies stoicism, selflessness and patriotism. Commissioned by the Archbishop of York, the neoclassical masterpiece also greatly appealed to the king.

Nelson's Death (western painting)

“The Death of Nelson,” by Benjamin West, 1806. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Company portraitist

Elizabeth, Countess of Effingham, c.  1797

“Elizabeth, Countess of Effingham”, by Benjamin West, circa 1797. (Photo: National Gallery of Art, public domain)

Known as the “American Raphael”, West was a leading figure in the London art scene. He trained generations of American artists who studied in London. Among them is John Trumbull, whose historic scenes from the American Revolution now hang on the United States Capitol and even adorn the US $2 bill.

Despite his success as a historical painter to the king, West turned to more religious subjects in his maturing career. While the King’s patronage persisted through the American Revolution, West was eventually eclipsed as his only favorite. The two maintained a close friendship, however. He continued to paint portraits for the English elite, and his sitters were elegantly posed amid their noble pursuits. Attributes of classical architecture or historical painting appear in the background.

West had come a long way from painting the people of Pennsylvania to the titled peers of England. However, he combined his past with his present in one of his later works. The portrait of his friend Benjamin Franklin shows the founding father flying a kite as he “discovered” electricity. A historical painting and a portrait combined, it is emblematic of West’s storied career.

West died in London in 1820 aged 81. He left behind a rich legacy of paintings, pupils and neoclassicism. As an American in London, West navigated a period of transatlantic change both politically and artistically in style.

Treaty of Paris by Benjamin West

“American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Agreement with Great Britain”, by Benjamin West, 1783-1784. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

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