Important American Paintings - September 2010
Benjamin West
John Williams, 1766
Oil on canvas, 31 3/4 × 42 1/2 inches (oval)
Signed and dated at lower left: "B. West PINXIT/1766"
Provenance: Sold by W. A. Wiles, a descendant of the sitter, at Sotheby’s, London, May 3, 1961, lot 137; Julius Weitzner, London; Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, by 1967; sold anonymously at Sotheby’s, London, June 23, 1971, lot 87; Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, 1972; Craig & Tarlton, Inc., Raleigh, N.C., 1974; sold anonymously at Sotheby’s Parke Bernet, New York, April 25, 1980, lot 4; Atlantic Richfield Company, Corporate Art Collection, Philadelphia.
References: American Paintings for Public and Private Collections [exh. cat., Hirschl & Adler Galleries] (New York, 1967), n.p. Aileen Ribiero, The Dress Worn at Masquerades in England, 1730 to 1790, and Its Relation to Fancy Dress in Portraiture (New York: Garland Press, 1984), p. 201, fig. 51. Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 564, no. 715, repro. Allen Staley, Benjamin West in Pennsylvania Collections [exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art] (Pennsylvania, 1986), p. 29.
Exhibited: "American Paintings for Public and Private Collections," Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, December 4, 1967–January 13, 1968. "Benjamin West in Pennsylvania Collections," Philadelphia Museum of Art, March 1–April 13, 1986, no. 19.

RS 5694

Benjamin West, the first American-born artist to receive international recognition, was born to a Quaker family in Springfield, Pennsylvania. He showed great natural talent for art at an early age and began to paint portraits that reflected the influence of colonial painters John Valentine Haidt (1700–1780), William Williams (1727–1791), and John Wollaston (fl. 1736–1767). West went to Italy in 1760 and spent several years studying art in Rome, Florence, and Venice before settling permanently in London. He began to paint a series of complex, multi-figure historical, literary, and religious subjects that attracted the patronage of King George III and ultimately made him one of the most prominent artists in late eighteenth-century Europe. His masterpiece, Death of General Wolfe (1770; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), revolutionized history painting as the first realistic representation of a contemporary event with figures dressed in modern clothing. Over the ensuing decades West painted numerous commissions for members of the royal family, aristocrats, and such notables as William Beckford, and became an important exponent of both the neoclassical and romantic movements. His London studio became a training ground for a generation of American artists, including Washington Allston (1779–1843), John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), Thomas Sully (1783–1872), and John Trumbull (1756–1843). West’s fame was so great that in 1792 he succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) and became president of the Royal Academy. West died in London. West painted this horizontal oval-format portrait of John Williams in London in 1766, the same year that he presumably painted similar portraits of the sitter’s wife (location unknown) and mother-in-law Mrs. Vanderwall (private collection).1 All three paintings were sold by a family descendant at Sotheby’s in London in 1961. It was also in 1766 that West produced one of his most important history paintings, Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (Yale Art Gallery, New Haven). No biographical information about Williams has survived, but he must have been a person of wealth and means. Both his languidly elegant pose and seventeenth-century attire were derived from the Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), who had been active in London over a century earlier. Van Dyke costume was in vogue among the aristocratic classes for wear at masquerades from the 1730s until about 1780; when Sir Horace Walpole attended a masquerade given by the Duchess of Norfolk in 1742, he commented on the "quantities of pretty Vandykes, and all kinds of old pictures walked out of the frames."2 Aileen Ribiero, an authority on eighteenth-century costume, speculated that Van Dyke costume "may have been worn as part of an intellectual fashion in scholarly circles as well as by fashionable young men."3 Consequently many nobles and fashionable people chose to have themselves represented in "fancy dress." The Williams portrait is painted in the style of contemporary continental neoclassicists, the Italian Pompeo Batoni (1708–1787) and the German Raphael Mengs (1728–1779), both artists with whom West had become familiar during his recent stay in Rome.


1. These portraits are listed, respectively, in Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), nos. 176 and 707.

2. Peter Cunningham, ed., The Letters of Horace Walpole, Vol. 1 (London: Richard Bentley, 1857), p. 132.

3. Aileen Ribiero, The Dress Worn at Masquerades in England, 1730 to 1790, and Its Relation to Fancy Dress in Portraiture (New York: Garland Press, 1984), p. 187.


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