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Joy of Museums

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Benjamin West

Benjamin West

Benjamin West

Benjamin West (1738 – 1820) was a British North American artist who painted famous historical scenes. West was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, as the tenth child of an innkeeper and his wife. He was entirely self-taught and went on to gain valuable patronage in the American Colonies. Later he toured Europe, eventually settling in London.

The Death of General Wolfe became one of the most frequently reproduced images of the period. West became known for his history paintings, which used expressive figures, colors, and compositional schemes to help the spectator to identify with the scene represented.

He impressed King George III and was mostly responsible for the launch of the Royal Academy, of which he became the second president after Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was appointed historical painter to the court and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures.

He was offered a knighthood but declined it, believing that he should instead be made a peer. West died in London and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.

A Tour of Benjamin West’s Art

  • Death of General Wolfe
    • “Death of General Wolfe” by Benjamin West depicts the death of British General James Wolfe at the 1759 Battle of Quebec during the French and Indian War. This painting captures a pivotal event in the Seven Years’ War that decided the fate of France’s colonies in North America. General Wolfe commanded the British Army and successfully held the British line against the French and won the battle. Unfortunately, General Wolfe was killed by musket wounds.

      In death, General Wolfe gained fame as a national hero and became an icon of the Seven Years’ War and British dominance in North America. This image was so popular that West made an identical painting of the same scene for George III of the United Kingdom, one year after this painting. In total, four other additional versions of the Death of General Wolfe were also produced by West. Museum:    National Gallery of Canada

  • The Death of Nelson
    • “The Death of Nelson” by Benjamin West depicts the last moments of Horatio Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar on the deck of HMS Victory, where a French sharpshooter fatally wounded him. Nelson’s death at Trafalgar secured his position as one of Britain’s most heroic figures. The significance of the victory and his death during the battle led to his signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty,” becoming famous.

      The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was a naval engagement fought by the British Royal Navy against the combined fleets of the French and Spanish Navies during the War of the Third Coalition of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815). Twenty-seven British ships led by Admiral Lord Nelson aboard HMS Victory defeated thirty-three French and Spanish ships. The battle took place in the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, and the British lost none. Museum: Walker Art Gallery

  • Self-Portrait
    • “Self-Portrait” by Benjamin West depicts the artists with the light strongest on his face and hands, and the rest of the picture falls into shadow. West began his career as a portrait painter in Philadelphia and New York. Patrons granted him a scholarship visit Rome, the first American artist to be given this opportunity.

      An earlier version of this portrait is exhibited in the Baltimore Museum of Art, which was created in 1770. This version is from 1776 and is more dramatic in its contrasts. Museum: National Gallery of Art, DC

Self-Portrait

  • Title:                       Self-Portrait
  • Artist:                     Benjamin West
  • Year:                       1776
  • Medium:                Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:           75.8 x 63 cm (29 13/16 x 24 13/16 in.)
  • Museum:                National Gallery of Art, DC

Benjamin West

Famous Artists you should Know

Benjamin West Quotes

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“To recognize great talent, we must encourage dreamers.”

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

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“Correctness of outline and the justness of character in the human figure are eternal. All other points are variable.”

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“Remember, light and shadow never stand still.”

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“It is a topic that history will proudly record, and the same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil of the artist.”
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“A kiss from my mother made me a painter.”

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“I will let them see if an obscure Yankee boy cannot shine as great as any of them.”

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“Is the painter a plagiarist because he sets his palette to nature?”

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“To recognize great talent, we must encourage dreamers.”
– Benjamin West

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Photo Credit: Benjamin West [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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