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Benjamin West

American-British Painter

Benjamin West Photo
Movements and Styles: Neoclassicism, Romanticism, The Sublime in Art

Born: October 10, 1738 - Springfield, Pennsylvania

Died: March 11, 1820 - London, England

"The power of expressing historical events in painting with perspicuity is one of the most impressive powers that can be given by man to convey useful lessons to others."

Summary of Benjamin West

The British colonists did not bring a strong art tradition with them to the shores of the New World, but this did not stop Benjamin West, the first internationally recognized artist to hale from the New World. Self-taught in his early years, West became a prominent portrait painter in Philadelphia and New York before travelling to Europe to immerse himself in the Italian Old Masters and Greek and Roman art. There he took up the newly forming Neoclassical style and painted several large-scale history paintings that were wildly popular with the public.

Wrapped in a mythology of self-promotion, West was hugely influential for a new generation of American artists, including Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley, that shaped the early Republic's visual identity. While his reputation languished with later critics and historians, West's eventual transition to Romanticism and embrace of current trends has prompted some scholars to consider West one of the first modern artists.

Key Ideas

On the forefront of Neoclassicism, West felt that art should convey ideal virtues and moralizing tales to educate and civilize the larger public. Drawing on Classical visual and literary sources as well as Enlightenment era philosophy, Neoclassical art's emphasis on symmetry, stability, and nobility was an attempt to instill those same values in the citizenry.
While painting largely for a European, specifically British, audience, West was careful to skirt the tensions between England and its New World colonies. While sensitive to English feelings, West still insisted on painting subjects taken from the New World, including Native Americans and colonial battles.
West, though, was not content with telling long-ago tales and instead incorporated contemporary events and dress into his paintings. While criticized for flouting the rules of Neoclassicism espoused by the Royal Academy of London, West's wager paid off. His Death of General Wolfe was wildly popular and one of the most reproduced paintings of the time.
West's penchant for innovation and his knack for knowing what was popular among audiences led him to embrace Romanticism at the end of his career. Emphasizing more dramatic story telling and evoking the sublime, West's later works still engaged the viewer but now by appealing to their sense of emotion instead of reason.
Benjamin West Life and Legacy

Born in 1738, Benjamin West was the youngest son of Sarah Person and John West, a Quaker who had married twice and had ten children. John West held a number of roles - cooper, tinsmith, and innkeeper among them, and Benjamin was born into humble surroundings near a New World settlement in Pennsylvania.

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