Benjamin West’s influence on the course of American painting was enormous, and it is certain that without him the achievements of most of the major American artists of the time would not have been possible. Born on October 10, 1738, in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, West manifested a talent for painting at an early age, and was encouraged to draw by his parents. By the age of fifteen he was something of a local celebrity for his portraits, and by 1756 he had attracted the attention of Dr. William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia, who enrolled him in his school and devised a special program in classical learning for him. His lessons in antiquity fueled his determination to become a history painter, and in 1760 he sailed for Italy on a journey that would lead him to the pinnacle of artistic success.
The first American artist to study in Italy, West painted assiduously and embraced the embryonic Neoclassical movement then developing over all of Europe. He met the right people—the antiquities scholar Cardinal Albani, the painter Anton Raphael Mengs, the historical genius Gavin Hamilton, among others—and, by the time he reached London in 1763, was steeped in the newest artistic trends. His ability, ambition, modernity, willingness to experiment, and social skills earned him widespread patronage. West met King George III, who appointed him a charter member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 and by 1772 made him his historical painter.
West’s position at the top of the hierarchy of British painters, once achieved through proximity to the king and his own grand historical tableau, was never in question. But although he painted competitively and successfully, his greatest studio productions were his many students. He fondly remembered his American upbringing and kept an open-door policy for American artists traveling abroad, providing them not only with a place to stay, but studio instruction, entrée into galleries and collections, and access to the Royal Academy. His first student was his friend Matthew Pratt, who came to London as an escort to West’s fiancée Elizabeth Shewell. Pratt produced his now-famous conversation piece, The American School (97.29.3), both in homage to West and in order to make public his intention to achieve artistic independence: he portrayed himself as a painter in a studio of younger students still at their drawing boards.
The artists that followed in and out of West’s studio comprise a who’s who of American painting: Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, Ralph Earl, Washington Allston, Thomas Sully, Samuel F. B. Morse, and many others. Peale arrived at West’s studio in 1767 and remained for two years, primarily painting miniatures for his livelihood and admiring his master’s grand-scale historical works, while eschewing the sophisticated painterliness of the English manner. Working together under West’s tutelage, the extraordinarily talented painters Stuart and Trumbull alternately praised and ridiculed their teacher. Allston stayed but a moment, accepting West’s hospitality as a means of grounding himself for subsequent studies in Italy. Sully and Morse caught West in his declining years, when as president of the Royal Academy he could offer his American students easy access to study at the schools and fatherly guidance toward the finest English artists of the day. Sully returned to America grateful to West, but painting in the manner of Sir Thomas Lawrence, and his colleague Morse took West’s encouragement of his historical works to heart, never giving up his ambition to paint large, multifigure compositions even when forced into portraiture by the exigencies of the American nineteenth-century market.
West died in 1820, leaving a legacy not only of his own strong historical works, but perhaps more importantly, a following of painters who represented his training and counsel through the nineteenth century.