CHAPTER XXVII. BENJAMIN WEST.
At a time when America was regarded in Europe as a savage region, and when Americans were looked upon as little better than barbarians by the people of the mother country, it was no slight achievement for an American artist to rise by the force of his genius to the proud position of President of the Royal Academy of Great Britain.
The man who won this triumph was Benjamin West. He was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, on the 10th of October, 1738. His parents were Quakers, plain, simple people, who feared God, lived a just life, and desired above all other things that their children should become pious and useful men and women. The old mansion-house where the future artist was born was situated in Chester County, and is still standing. It is not far from Philadelphia, and the place is now called Westdale. His father's family emigrated from England to America with William Penn, at his second visit, in 1699. John West married the daughter of Thomas Pearson, by whom he had ten children. Of these, Benjamin was the youngest son. His mother was a woman of great piety, and, being once in attendance upon a memorable religious revival, at which she was terribly agitated by the preaching of one Edward Peckover, an itinerant Quaker minister, was taken with premature labor, of which Benjamin West was born.
It was predicted that a child who had been brought into the world under such circumstances would be a man of more than ordinary fame, and the good mother treasured these prophecies in her heart, and watched the career of her boy with the keenest interest.
When he was but seven years old, he was left one day to watch beside the cradle of the infant child of his eldest sister, who, though married, was still living at home. Being unusually silent for a long time, his mother concluded that she would go and see what he was doing. Upon entering the room where he had been left with his charge, she saw him kneeling by a chair which he had placed close up to the cradle, gazing at the infant, and making what she supposed to be marks on a paper which lay on the chair. Stealing up behind him softly, she saw to her astonishment that this boy, only seven years old, had executed, with black and red ink and a pen, an accurate though rude likeness of the sleeping babe. This was the first evidence he had ever given of his predilection for art, and was indeed a most surprising performance for so young a child.
The next summer a party of Indians came to Springfield to pay their annual visit, and to please them little Benjamin showed them some sketches of birds and flowers which he had executed with pen and ink. The savages were delighted with them, and presented him with the red and yellow pigments with which they colored their ornaments. In addition to this gift, they taught him how to prepare these colors, to which he added another, namely, indigo, which his mother gave him from her laundry. His colors were rude enough, but his pencils were ruder. They were made of the hairs which he had pulled from a cat's back and fastened in the end of a goose-quill. Soon after this, a relative from Philadelphia, chancing to visit the old homestead, was struck with the talent of the little fellow, and upon his return to the city sent him a box of colors, with pencils and canvas and a few prints. He was only nine years old, but he was a born artist. He had never seen any painting of merit, and the few prints which his relative gave him were the most finished productions he had ever seen. The box of colors was his most precious possession, and it opened to him new fields of enjoyment. The day of its arrival he gave himself up entirely to the pleasure of examining it. "Even after going to sleep," says his biographer, "he awoke more than once during the night, and anxiously put out his hand to the box, which he had placed by his bedside, half afraid that he might find his riches only a dream. Next morning he rose at break of day, and, carrying his colors and canvas to the garret, proceeded to work. Every thing else was now unheeded; even his attendance at school was given up. As soon as he got out of the sight of his father and mother, he stole to his garret, and there passed the hours in a world of his own. At last, after he had been absent from school some days, the master called at his father's house to inquire what had become of him. This led to the discovery of his secret occupation. His mother, proceeding to the garret, found the truant; but so much was she astonished and delighted by the creation of his pencil, which also met her view when she entered the apartment, that, instead of rebuking him, she could only take him in her arms and kiss him with transports of affection. He made a new composition of his own out of two of the engravings, which he had colored from his own feeling of the proper tints; and so perfect did the appearance already appear to his mother, that, although half the canvas yet remained uncovered, she would not suffer him to add another touch to what he had done. Mr. Gait, West's biographer, saw the picture in the state in which it had thus been left sixty-seven years afterward; and the artist himself used to acknowledge that in none of his subsequent efforts had he been able to excel some of the touches of invention in this his first essay."
His next effort was a landscape, which comprehended a view of a river, with vessels in the stream and cattle browsing on the banks. He could not have been much over ten years of age at this time, and the picture, though insignificant in itself, is remarkable as the work of a child. He subsequently presented it to his friend, Mr. William Henry, of Lancaster, whose family still retain possession of it. He visited Philadelphia soon after, and received a few simple instructions in the practical portion of his art, after which he went about through the towns of the vicinity of his home, painting portraits of his friends. At length he was sent for by Mrs. Ross, of Lancaster, a lady famed for her great beauty, to paint the portraits of herself and her family—a great honor for a lad of twelve.
It was in Lancaster, in the year 1750, that he made the acquaintance of Mr. William Henry. That gentleman became deeply interested in the precocious boy, and frequently came to watch him at his portrait-painting. One day he said to Benjamin, that if he (Henry) could paint equally well he would not waste his time upon portraits, but would devote himself to historical subjects. In the course of the conversation to which this remark gave rise, Mr. Henry proposed to him to make an attempt in this direction, and suggested to him "The Death of Socrates" as his first subject. The little artist frankly avowed that he had never heard of the great philosopher, and Mr. Henry at once went to his library and brought out a volume of Plutarch, from which he read to the boy the beautiful story of the wise man's death. West listened with the deepest interest, and expressed his perfect readiness to undertake the task, but feared he would have difficulty in painting the figure of the slave who presented the poison, and which he thought ought to be naked, since he had hitherto painted only men with their clothes on. Mr. Henry had in his employ a young man of fine appearance, and upon hearing West's objection at once sent for him. As the workman entered the room Henry pointed to him, and said to West, "There's your model." West took the hint, painted the picture, which was purchased by Mr. Henry, and thenceforth determined that in his art he would look only into nature for his models.
At the age of sixteen he returned to Springfield. He was anxious to continue his career as an artist, and as his parents were satisfied that he was now old enough to enter upon some permanent occupation, they agreed that his wishes should be submitted to a public meeting of the Society of Friends. The meeting was called, and the matter was laid before them, the boy himself being present. His relatives and friends were all very proud of his talents, but as the profession of an artist was so entirely at variance with all Quaker habits and ideas, they felt that the subject was one which ought not to be rashly decided. Silence prevailed for a long time after the opening of the meeting, but at length John Williamson, moved by the Spirit, rose and addressed the assemblage, declaring his belief that as the youth had not derived his fondness for art from any of his associations or surroundings, and since it was so manifestly a special gift from the Creator, it was their plain duty to bid him go forward in the path that had been marked out for him, and to wish him God-speed in his efforts. At the close of his remarks silence again fell upon the assembly. Then the women rose, and approaching the lad, one by one, kissed him on the cheek, and the men, laying their hands on his head, prayed that the Lord might verify in his life the value of the gift which had induced them, in spite of their religious tenets on the subject, to allow him to enter upon the permanent exercises of the profession so dear to his heart.
Thus was he dedicated to his art, and at the same time separated to a certain degree from his Quaker brethren. Not long after this he violated every principle of the Quaker dispensation by volunteering under Major Sir Peter Halket to go in search of the remains of Braddock's army.
In 1756, at the age of eighteen, he established himself in Philadelphia as a portrait painter, and soon after removed to New York, where he painted portraits at five guineas a head, occasionally attempting an historical piece. When he was twenty years old he made a visit to Europe—a visit which decided his destiny. A famine in the south of Europe induced a Philadelphia merchant to dispatch a vessel laden with flour to Leghorn, and his son, who was to take passage in the ship, proposed to West to accompany him, and thus secure an opportunity of seeing the art-treasures of the Old World. West promptly accepted the invitation, and some of his friends in New York provided him with an outfit for the voyage. Upon arriving at Gibraltar, the vessel was boarded by a British officer, who proved to be a kinsman of the son of the owner of the ship, and he not only passed them without molestation, but enabled them to secure unusual facilities in the voyage up the Mediterranean. West arrived in Rome in July, 1759, and was kindly received by the English Lord Grantham, to whom he bore letters of introduction.
"Among the distinguished persons whom Mr. West found in Rome, was the celebrated Cardinal Albani. At an evening party, the Cardinal became curious to witness the effect which the works of art in the Belvidere and Vatican would produce on the young artist. The whole company, which consisted of the principal Roman nobility and strangers of distinction then in Rome, were interested in the event, and it was arranged, in the course of the evening, that, on the following morning, they should accompany West to the palaces. At the hour appointed, the company assembled, and a procession consisting of upwards of thirty of the most magnificent equipages in the capital of Christendom, and filled with some of the most erudite characters in Europe, conducted the young Quaker to view the masterpieces of art. It was agreed that the 'Apollo' should be first submitted to his view, because it was the most perfect work among all the ornaments of Rome, and, consequently, the best calculated to produce that effect which the company were anxious to witness. The statue then stood in a case, inclosed with doors, which could be so opened as to disclose it at once to full view. West was placed in the situation where it was seen to the most advantage, and the spectators arranged themselves on each side. When the keeper threw open the doors, the artist felt himself surprised with a sudden recollection altogether different from the gratification which he had expected, and without being aware of the force of what he said, exclaimed, 'My God! how like it is to a young Mohawk warrior.' The Italians, observing his surprise and hearing the exclamation, were excessively mortified to find that the god of their idolatry was compared to a savage. They mentioned their chagrin, and asked West to give some more distinct explanation, by informing them what sort of people the Mohawk Indians were. He described to them their education, their dexterity with the bow and arrow, the admirable elasticity of their limbs, and how much their active life expands the chest, while the quick breathing of their speed in the chase dilates the nostrils with that apparent consciousness of vigor which is so nobly depicted in the 'Apollo.' 'I have seen them often,' added he, 'standing in that very attitude, and pursuing with an intense eye the arrow which they had just discharged from the bow,' The Italians were delighted with this descriptive explanation, and allowed that a better criticism had never been pronounced on the merits of the statue."
Soon after his arrival in Rome, West painted a portrait of Lord Grantham, which won him considerable reputation. It was at first attributed to Raphael Meugs, but when the true artist was announced, and the circumstances of his history became known, West found himself suddenly famous, with orders enough to place him at once in comfortable circumstances. Cardinal Albani and Lord Grantham were very kind to him during his stay in Rome, and Raphael Meugs advised him to make a careful tour of study through the Italian art capitals. While in Rome he painted two pictures, "Cimon and Iphigenia," and "Angelica and Medora," which were well received, and during this period he was elected a member by the Academies of Florence, Bologna, and Parma. He made the tour advised by Meugs, remaining in Italy several years. Thence he proceeded to France, where he passed a short time in studying the French masters, after which he went to England, intending to sail from that country for America, where he had left his heart behind him in the keeping of a young Quakeress of Philadelphia.
He reached London in 1763, and while continuing his studies here, whither his reputation had preceded him from Italy, undertook some commissions for Archbishop Drummond and several other church dignitaries. These attracted general admiration, and his countrymen residing in London were prompt to recognize and proclaim his genius. He had relatives living in England, so that he was not an entire stranger there. His success was marked from the first, and his friends urged him to profit by so favorable a beginning, give up his idea of returning to America, and make his permanent home in England. This he at length decided to do, and devoted himself with increased ardor to his labors. In two years he considered himself sufficiently well established to send to Philadelphia for his betrothed. This lady, Miss Elizabeth Shewell, came out to England under the care of his father, and in the same year, 1765, West was married to her in London. She was a lady of great amiability of character, and by the English was often spoken of as the Philadelphia beauty.
Soon after his arrival in England he produced a large painting on a subject from Tacitus, "Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus." It was a decided success. George the Third was deeply impressed with it, and congratulated West warmly upon its merits. At the same time the king gave him a commission for a painting,—the subject to be "The Death of Regulus,"—and thus began the friendship between the monarch and the artist, which lasted for nearly forty years. He was a hard worker, and during his long life his pictures followed each other in rapid succession. They are estimated by a writer in Blackwood's Magazine at three thousand in number. Mr. Dunlap says that they would cover a wall ten feet high and a quarter of a mile long if arranged side by side on a flat surface. The most famous are his "Death of Wolfe;" "Regulus, a Prisoner to the Carthaginians;" "The Battle of La Hogue;" "The Death of Bayard;" "Hamilcar Swearing the Infant Hannibal at the Altar;" "The Departure of Regulus;" "Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus;" "Christ Healing the Sick;" "Death on the Pale Horse;" "The Descent of the Holy Ghost on the Saviour in the Jordan;" "The Crucifixion;" and "Christ Rejected."
The picture which brought him most prominently before the public, and which placed his popularity beyond dispute, was "The Death of Wolfe at Quebec." It was fashionable at this time to treat nothing but subjects from ancient history, and when West announced his intention of painting a picture of contemporary history his friends warned him that he was incurring a serious risk. Nevertheless he finished his "Death of Wolfe," and it was exhibited in the National Gallery. The public "acknowledged its excellence at once, but the lovers of old art—called classical—complained of the barbarism of boots, buttons, and blunderbusses, and cried out for naked warriors, with bows, bucklers, and battering rams." Lord Grosvenor was much pleased with the picture, and finally purchased it, though he did so with hesitation, daunted to some extent by the fierce storm of opposition with which the critics received it. Sir Joshua Reynolds, then the President of the Royal Academy, and the Archbishop of York, called on West and protested against his barbarous innovation, but he declared to them that "the event to be commemorated happened in the year 1759, in a region of the world unknown to Greeks and Romans, and at a period of the world when no warrior who wore classic costume existed. The same rule which gives law to the historian should rule the painter." When the king saw the picture he was delighted both with it and West's originality, and declared that he was sorry Lord Grosvenor had been before him in purchasing it. This was the inauguration of a new era in British art, and Sir Joshua Reynolds was obliged to declare, "West has conquered. I foresee that this picture will not only become one of the most popular, but will occasion a revolution in art." This frank avowal was as honorable to Sir Joshua as to West.
West painted for George the Third a number of subjects taken from the early history of England, and received from the same monarch a commission for a series of paintings illustrating the progress of revealed religion, with which the king designed to ornament the chapel at Windsor Castle. Of these twenty-eight were finished when the Prince of Wales, afterward George the Fourth, came into power as Prince Regent, and the commission was withdrawn. The artist then began a series of grand religious subjects, upon which he was still engaged when death called him to rest from all his labors. Of those which were completed, "Death on the Pale Horse" and "Christ Healing the Sick" are the best known in this country.
In 1792, upon the death of Sir Joshua Reynolds, West was made President of the Royal Academy. The king wished to confer upon him the honor of knighthood, but he declined it, alleging that he was not wealthy enough to support the dignity of the position. In consequence of dissensions in the Academy, West resigned his presidency in 1802. The post was filled for a year by James Wyatt, the architect, and at the close of that time West was re-elected by every ballot but one—that of Fuseli, who voted for Mrs. Lloyd, a member of the Academy, declaring that he considered "one old woman as good as another." West continued in this office until his death.
The close of his life was blessed with ample means, and, as he was in the full possession of all his faculties and covered with art's supremest honors, it may be regarded as the happiest portion of his career. His house was always open to Americans visiting England, and few things pleased him more than to listen to news from his native village. He was a kind and judicious friend to young artists, especially to those of his own country studying in England, and took a lively pleasure in their success. Leigh Hunt, whose mother was a relative of West, has left us the following description of him:
"The appearance of West was so gentlemanly that the moment he changed his gown for a coat he seemed to be full dressed. The simplicity and self-possession of the young Quaker, not having time enough to grow stiff—for he went early to Rome—took up, I suppose, with more ease than most would have done, the urbanities of his new position. Yet this man, so well bred, and so indisputably clever in his art, whatever might be the amount of his genius, had received a homely or careless education, and pronounced some of his words with a puritanical barbarism; he would talk of his art all day. There were strong suspicions of his leaning to his native side in politics, and he could not restrain his enthusiasm for Bonaparte. How he managed these matters with the higher powers in England I can not say."
Possessed originally of a sound and vigorous constitution, which he had not weakened by any species of dissipation, West lived to a good old age, and died in London on the 11th of March, 1820, in his eighty-second year. He was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral, by the side of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and under the same great dome which covers the tombs of Nelson and Wellington.