Benjamin West, John Galt, and the Biography of 1816

Article excerpt

"Incalculable" was William Dunlap's estimation of Benjamin West's effect on American art. In his History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design, in the United Slates (1834), he lionized West as the first internationally famous, American-born painter and a committed teacher of American artists.1 A century after that ambitious first chronicle of American artists, James Thomas Flexner tried to cement the identification in America's Old Masters (1939). West, he proclaimed, was "incontrovertibly the father of American painting."2 Flexner's defensive tone suggests a complication, which Dunlap implicitly confronted in his first sentence on West, a flat declaration that the painter was "indigenous." The trajectory of West's career has always made his distinction as an American problematic. Unlike John Singleton Copley, the exact contemporary whose twenty-year career in Boston established him as the premier painter in colonial British America, West (1738-1820) came to artistic maturity only after departing the colonies in 1760. Copley eventually moved to England himself-a relocation sometimes judged as abandonment, given its timing on the eve of revolution and the artist's marital alliance with a staunchly loyalist family.3 Still, Copley left behind a compelling body of work: hundreds of portraits that vividly captured prosperous Americans on the threshold of independence. West's American portraits, by contrast, offer little more than wan effigies of his fellow Pennsylvanians. Yet West and his patrons had the audacity to believe he could accomplish something more. In 1760, at age twenty-one, he left home for Europe, the first American artist to travel abroad for study.

Three years in Italy radically altered West's prospects. Through fortunate connections, application, and ingenuity, he acquired the social and cultural polishing necessary to position himself within an emerging British artistic elite. By 1763, he was in London, prepared to capitalize on his Italian experience (still unusual for British artists) and to gamble on his novelty as the "American Raphael."4 Against expectations, West presented himself as a history painter. Though portraitists alone attracted steady work, theirs was a genre debased in art theory by its mimetic constraints, whereas historical subjects, summoned by intellect and imagination, dignified their makers as learned practitioners of a liberal art. Such academic concerns consumed the artists in West's metropolitan circle, founders in 1768 of the Royal Academy of Arts. The institution's first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, made a vigorous case for history painting in his influential "discourses," fifteen lectures on the theory and practice of art delivered between 1769 and 1790 and quickly published.5 Ironically, portrait painting sustained Reynolds's own career. It was, instead, the American-born West who broke the mold of the English face painter. He won lasting fame with a subject from modern history, The Death of General Wolfe (1770)-representing the fallen hero at a decisive moment in the British conquest of Canada-and he gained an invaluable marketing tool in the fine reproductive engraving by William Woollett (1776), which realized huge sums for publisher John Boydell, Woollett, and West himself (Fig. 1). Most importantly, The Death of Wolfe secured the attention of George III, who commissioned a copy and later provided West with steady employment, allowing the artist to call himself "Historical Painter to the King"-the first to gain that distinction. West's election as second president of the Royal Academy, after Reynolds's death in 1792, was a foregone conclusion. In one of West's two self-portraits commemorating that achievement, a laurel-crowned bust of the king gazes in imperious profile toward the new president, who sits with upright dignity in his official chair (Fig. 2). The artist grasps a paper marked with the royal command of 1768, by which the academy was constituted (suggesting his instrumental role in winning the king's patronage), while books inscribed "Bible" and "History of England" evoke the subject matter of West's paintings for Windsor Castle. …