The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview
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1. Benjamin West in Italy

ALLEN STALEY, Columbia University

Benjamin West, John Allen, ca. 1760. Oil on canvas, 49 x 39 ⅛″. Private collection.

On April 12, 1760, at the age of twenty-one, Benjamin West set sail from Philadelphia on the Betty Sally, a merchant vessel carrying a load of sugar to Italy. He arrived in Leghorn (or Livorno), on the coast of Tuscany, on June 16. There he parted company with his two companions on the voyage, Colonel Joseph Shippen and John Allen, the son of the owner of the sugar, Chief Justice William Allen of Philadelphia. Armed with letters of introduction provided by Robert Rutherford, the English factor in Leghorn to whom the sugar had been dispatched, West traveled south to Rome, which he reached on July 10. In Rome, a young English milord on the Grand Tour, Thomas Robinson (later the second Baron Grantham), took the young American under his wing, showed him around, and introduced him to the cosmopolitan society gathered around Cardinal Alessandro Albani, thus plunging him into the most aesthetically up-to- date milieu in Europe. The German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who had published Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture in 1755 (before leaving Dresden to come to Rome), and who in 1760 was at work on his great History of Ancient Art (to be published in 1764), was employed as Albani's librarian. And in 1760, another German, the painter Anton Raphael Mengs, was working for the same patron, painting the most famous monument of early Neoclassicism, the fresco of Parnassus, on a ceiling of the Villa Albani. Mengs was undoubtedly the most widely admired artist currently active in Rome, and he instantly became West's proclaimed "favorite master." In John Galt's account, the first painting West undertook in Italy was done to show to Mengs, and his success was such that the connoisseurs who saw it believed it had been painted by Mengs himself, rather than by West. 1 This picture, a portrait of Thomas Robinson, has disappeared (or has not been surely identified), but other portraits from West's Italian stay (Plate 1) demonstrate that emulation of Mengs was the route by which the young artist first strove to overcome the inevitable limitations of training and experience of his colonial American background.

In Mengs, who was to publish an influential treatise, Thoughts on Beauty and Taste in Painting, in 1762, West also found a mentor. When shown West's portrait of Robinson, Mengs "gave the Artist an advice which he never forgot, nor remembered without gratitude." In brief, that advice was to see everything he could in Rome and make a few drawings after classical sculpture; visit Florence, Bologna, Parma, and Venice to study specifically the work of the Carracci, Cor


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