Benjamin West was an Anglo-American history painter around and after the time of the American War of Independence and the Seven Years’ War. West was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, in a house that is now in the borough of Swarthmore on the campus of Swarthmore College, as the tenth child of an innkeeper and his wife. The family later moved to Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, where his father was the proprietor of the Square Tavern, still standing in that town.
From 1746 to 1759, West worked in Pennsylvania, mostly painting portraits. While West was in Lancaster in 1756, his patron, a gunsmith named William Henry, encouraged him to paint a Death of Socrates based on an engraving in Charles Rollin’s Ancient History. His resulting composition, which significantly differs from the source, has been called “the most ambitious and interesting painting produces in colonial America”.
West travelled to Italy in 1760 in the company of the Scot William Patoun, a painter who later became an art collector. In common with many artists, architects, and lovers of the fine arts at that time he conducted a Grand Tour. West expanded his repertoire by copying works of Italian painters such as Titian and Raphael direct from the originals.
In August 1763, West arrived in England, n what he initially intended as a visit on his way back to America. In fact, he never returned to America. He stayed for a month at Bath with William Allen, who was also in the country, and visited his half-brother Thomas West at Reading at the urging of his father. In London he was introduced to Richard Wilson and his student Joshua Reynolds. He moved into a house in Bedford Street, Covent Garden. The first picture he painted in England Angelica and Medora, along with a portrait of General Monckton, & Cymon and Iphigenia, painted in Rome, were shown at the exhibition in Spring Gardens in 1764.
In 1772, King George appointed him historical painter to the court at an annual fee of £1,000. He painted a series of eight large canvases showing the life of Edward III for St George’s Hall at Windsor Castle and proposed a cycle of 36 works on the theme of “the progress of revealed religion” for a chapel at the castle, of which 28 were eventually executed.
He painted his most famous, and possibly most influential painting, The Death of General Wolfe, in 1770 and it exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771. West became known for his large scale history paintings, which use expressive figures, colours and compositional schemes to help the spectator to identify with the scene represented. West called this “epic representation”. His 1778 work The Battle of the Boyne portrayed William of Orange’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and strongly influenced subsequent images of William. In 1806 he produced The Death of Nelson, to commemorate Horatio Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Though initially snubbed by Sir Joshua Reynolds, founding President of the Royal Academy, and by some other Academicians who felt he was over-ambitious, West was elected President of the Royal Academy on the death of Reynolds in 1792. He resigned in 1805, to be replaced by a fierce rival, architect James Wyatt. However West was again elected President the following year, and served until his death.
West died at his house in Newman Street, London, on March 11, 1820, and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.