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Benjamin West (1738-1820)

( Originally Published 1955 )

American painter of portraits and historical subjects active most of his life in England. Born in what is now Swarthmore, Pa., the son of an innkeeper, he began his career as an artist by copying woodcuts and engravings as a child, painted landscapes at the age of eleven, and soon was doing commissioned portraits. In 1755-56 he was in Philadelphia, where he received his first formal education. He attended a classical school, studied painting with William Williams, and read Fresnoy and Richardson on art. With the aid of his patrons he left for Italy in 1760. In Rome he was highly regarded, moved in the highest intellectual circles, was patronized by Mengs, and copied Raphael, Correggio, and Titian. In 1763 he settled in England and worked there for the rest of his life. He met George III through the Archbishop of York, became his close friend, and was commissioned by him to do many historical paintings. He was appointed court painter in 1772, elected president of the Royal Academy in 1792; he left about 3,000 paintings and helped to train three generations of American students, including, Peale, Stuart, Sully, Allston, Trumbull, and Morse. Though a mediocre artist, he played an important part in the development o# late-eighteenth-century art in Europe. He was in historical succession one of the first Classicists, Realists, and Romantics. With his American portraits behind him, he absorbed the academic tradition and took part in the classic revival. In his painting Death of General Wolfe (1772, Ottawa Museum), he helped establish the principle of realistic and contemporary historical painting.

And at the height of his international reputation as a classical painter, he produced a prelude to the Romantic movement in Death on a Pale Horse, the first version of which was executed and exhibited in 1802 (Philadelphia).

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