1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/West, Benjamin
WEST, BENJAMIN (1738–1820), English historical and portrait-painter, was born on the 10th of October 1738, at Springfield, Pennsylvania, of an old Quaker family from Buckinghamshire. When a boy of seven he began to show his inclinations to art. According to a well-known story, he was sitting by the cradle of his sister’s child, watching its sleep, when the infant happened to smile in its dreams, and struck with its beauty, young Benjamin got some paper, and drew its portrait. The career thus begun was prosecuted amid many difficulties; but his perseverance overcame every obstacle, and at the age of eighteen he settled in Philadelphia as a portrait-painter. After two years he removed to New York, where he practised his profession with considerable success. In 1760, through the assistance of some friends, he was enabled to complete his artistic education by a trip to Italy, where he remained nearly three years. Here he acquired reputation, and was elected a member of the principal academies of Italy. On the expiry of his Italian visit he settled in London as an historical painter. His success was not long doubtful. George III. took him under his special patronage; and commissions flowed in upon him from all quarters. In 1768 he was one of the four artists who submitted to the king the plan for a royal academy, of which he was one of the earliest members; and in 1772 he was appointed historical painter to the king. He devoted his attention mainly to the painting of large pictures on historical and religious subjects, conceived, as he believed, in the style of the old masters, and executed with much great care and much taste. So high did he stand in public favour that on the death of Sir Joshua Reynolds, in 1792, he was elected his successor as president of the Royal Academy, an office which he held for twenty-eight years. In 1802 he took an advantage of the opportunity afforded by the peace of Amiens to visit Paris, and inspect the magnificent collection of the masterpieces of art, pillaged from the gallery of almost every capital in Europe, which then adorned the Louvre. On his return to London he devoted himself anew to the labours of his profession, which were, however, somewhat broken in upon by quarrels with some of the members of the Royal Academy. In 1804 he resigned his office, but an all but unanimous request that he should return to the chair induced him to recall his resignation. Time did not at all weaken the energy with which he laboured at his easel. When sixty-five he painted one of his largest works, “Christ healing the Sick.” This was originally designed to be presented to the Quakers in Philadelphia, to assist in erecting a hospital. On its completion it was exhibited in London to immense crowds,and was purchased by the British Institution for 3000 guineas, West sending a replica to Philadelphia. His subsequent works were nearly all on the same grand scale as the picture which had been so successful, but they did not meet with very ready sale. He died in London on the 11th of March 1820, and was buried in St Paul’s.
West’s works, which fond criticism ranked during his life with the great productions of the great masters, are now considered as in general formal, tame, wanting that freedom of nature and that life which genius alone can breathe into the canvas. His “Death of Wolfe” is interesting as introducing modern costume instead of the classical draperies which had been previously universal in similar subjects by English artists; and his “Battle of La Hogue” is entitled to an honourable place among British historical paintings.
An account of West’s life was published by Galt (The Progress of Genius, 1816). See also H. T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists (N. Y., 1868).