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In the wilds of the new world, a century and a half ago, there was, apparently, no spot less likely to produce a famous painter than the Quaker province of Pennsylvania. And yet, when George Washington was only six years old there was born, in the little town of Springfield, Chester County, a boy whose interesting and remarkable career from infancy to old age has provided one of the most instructive lessons for students in art that America affords.
Benjamin West, President of the Royal Academy.
The parents of Benjamin West were sincere and self-respecting, and in the language of the times, well-to-do. His mother's grandfather was the intimate and confidential friend of William Penn. The family of his father claimed direct descent from the Black Prince and Lord Delaware, of the time of King Edward III. Colonel James West was the friend and companion in arms of John Hampden. When Benjamin West was at work upon his great picture of the "Institution of the Garter," the King of England was delighted when the Duke of Buckingham assured him that West had an ancestral right to a place among the warriors and knights of his own painting. The Quaker associates of the parents of the artist, the patriarchs of Pennsylvania, regarded their asylum in America as the place for affectionate intercourse--free from all the military predilections and political jealousies of Europe. The result was a state of society more contented, peaceful, and pleasing than the world had ever before exhibited. At the time of the birth of Benjamin West the interior settlements in Pennsylvania had attained considerable wealth, and unlimited hospitality formed a part of the regular economy of the principal families. Those who resided near the highways were in the habit, after supper and the religious exercises of the evening, of making a large fire in the hallway, and spreading a table with refreshments for such travellers as might pass in the night, who were expected to step in and help themselves. This was conspicuously the case in Springfield. Other acts of liberality were performed by this community, to an extent that would have beggared the munificence of the old world. Poverty was not known in this region. But whether families traced their lineage to ancient and noble sources, or otherwise, their pride was so tempered with the meekness of their faith, that it lent a singular dignity to their benevolence.
The Indians mingled freely with the people, and when they paid their annual visits to the plantations, raised their wigwams in the fields and orchards without asking permission, and were never molested. Shortly after Benjamin West's first efforts with pen and ink, a party of red men reached and encamped in Springfield. The boy-artist showed them his sketches of birds and flowers, which seemed to amuse them greatly. They at once proceeded to teach him how to prepare the red and yellow colors with which they decorated their ornaments. To these Mrs. West added blue, by contributing a piece of indigo. Thus the boy had three prismatic colors for his use. What could be more picturesque than the scene where the untutored Indian gave the future artist his first lesson in mixing paints! These wild men also taught him archery, that he might shoot birds for models if he wanted their bright plumage to copy.
The neighbors were attracted by the boy's drawings, and finally a relative, Mr. Pennington, a prominent merchant of Philadelphia, came to pay the family a visit. He thought the boy's crude pictures were wonderful, as he was then only entering his eighth year. When he went home he immediately sent the little fellow a box of paints, with six engravings by Grevling. John Gait, who wrote from the artist's own statements, describes the effect of this gift upon the boy. In going to bed he placed the box so near his couch, that he could hug and caress it every time he wakened. Next morning he rose early, and taking his paints and canvas to the garret, began to work. He went to breakfast, and then stole back to his post under the roof, forgetting all about school. When dinnertime came he presented himself at table, as usual, but said nothing of his occupation. He had been absent from school some days before the master called on his parents to inquire what had become of him. This led to the discovery of his secret painting, for his mother proceeded to the garret and found the truant. She was, however, so astonished with the creation upon his canvas, that she took him in her arms and kissed him with transports of affection. He had made a composition of his own out of two of the engravings--which he had colored from his ideas of the proper tints to be used--and so perfect did the picture appear to Mrs. West that, although half the canvas remained to be covered, she would not suffer the child to add another touch with his brush. Sixty-seven years afterward, Mr. Gait saw this production in the exact state in which it was left, and Mr. West himself acknowledged that in subsequent efforts he had never been able to excel some of the touches of invention in this first picture.
The first instruction in art which the artist received was from Mr. William Williams, a painter in Philadelphia. Young West's first attempt at portraiture was at Lancaster, where he painted "The Death of Socrates" for William Henry, a gunsmith. He was not yet sixteen, but other paintings followed which possessed so much genuine merit, that they have been preserved as treasures. One of these is in possession of General Meredith Reed, of Paris, France, a descendant of the signer. West returned to his home in Springfield, in 1754, to discuss the question of his future vocation. He had an inclination for military life, and volunteered as a recruit in the old French war; but military attractions vanished among the hardships involved, and in 1756, when eighteen years old, he established himself in Philadelphia as a portrait-painter, his price being "five guineas a head." Two years later he went to New York, where he passed eleven months, and was liberally employed by the merchants and others. He painted the portrait of Bishop Provoost, those of Gerardus Duyekinck and his wife--full length--one of Mrs. Samuel Breese, and many others, which are in the families of descendants, and characteristic examples of his early work.
In 1760 an opportunity offered for him to visit Rome, Italy. He carried letters to Cardinal Albani and other celebrities, and as he was very handsome and intelligent, and came from a far-away land about which hung the perpetual charm of tradition and romance, he soon became the lion of the day among the imaginative Italians. It was a novelty then for an American to appear in the Eternal City, and the very morning after his arrival a curious party followed his steps to observe his pursuit of art. He remained in Italy until 1763, and while there he painted, among others, his pictures of "Cimon and Iphigenia," and "Angelica and Medora." His portrait of Lord Grantham excited much interest, and that nobleman's introduction facilitated his visit to London, which proved so prolific in results. There was no great living historical painter in England just then; and at first there was no sale for West's pictures, as it was unfashionable to buy any but "old masters." But the young artist was undaunted, and presently attracted attention in high places. His picture of "Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus," painted for Dr. Drummond, Archbishop of York, secured him the favor of George III., and the commission from his majesty to paint the "Departure of Regulus from Rome." His untiring industry and gentlemanly habits were conspicuous, and may be regarded as among the great secrets of his continual advance and public recognition. His "Parting of Hector and Andromache," and "Return of the Prodigal Son," were among his notable productions of this period. His "Death of General Wolfe" has been, says Tuckerman, "truly declared to have created an era in English art, by the successful example it initiated of the abandonment of classic costume--a reform advocated by Reynolds, who glories in the popular innovation." His characters were clad in the dress of their time. Reynolds said to the Archbishop of York: "I foresee that this picture will not only become one of the most popular, but will occasion a revolution in art." It was purchased by Lord Grosvenor. Among the long list of paintings executed by order of the king were "The Death of Chevalier Bayard;" "Edward III. Embracing his Son on the Field of Battle at Cressy;" "The Installation of the Order of the Garter;" "The Black Prince Receiving the King of France and his Son Prisoners at Poictiers," and "Queen Philippa Interceding with Edward for the Burgesses of Calais." West was one of the founders, in 1768, of the Royal Academy, and succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as president of the institution in 1792, which post he held almost uninterruptedly until 1815.
In the year 1780 he proposed a series of pictures on the progress of revealed religion, of which there were thirty-six subjects in all, but he never executed but twenty-eight of these, owing to the mental trouble which befell the king. He then commenced a new series of important works, of which "Christ Healing the Sick" was purchased by an institution in Great Britain for #3,000, and was subsequently copied for the Pennsylvania Hospital. "Penn's Treaty with the Indians" was painted for Granville Penn, the scene representing the founding of Pennsylvania. West wrote to one of his family that he had taken the liberty of introducing in this painting the likeness of his father and his brother Thomas. "That is the likeness of our brother," he says, "standing immediately behind Penn, leaning on his cane. I need not point out the picture of our father, as I believe you will find it in the print from memory." Tuckerman says that the work which, in the opinion of many critics, best illustrates the skill of West in composition, drawing, expression, and dramatic effect, is his "Death on the Pale Horse." His "Cupid," owned in Philadelphia, is one of his most effective pictures as to color.
The full-length portrait of West, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, P.R.A., represents the great artist in his character as president of the Royal Academy, delivering a lecture on "coloring" to the students. Under his right hand may be noticed, standing on an easel, a copy of Raphael's cartoon of the "Death of Ananias." The picture of West's face has been considered a perfect likeness, but the figure somewhat too large and too tall in its effects. A copy of this portrait was made by Charles R. Leslie; and Washington Allston also painted a portrait of the artist. There exists, it is said, a portrait of West from his own hand, taken apparently at about the age of forty, three-quarter length, in Quaker costume.
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