Benjamin West

(American, 1738 - 1820)

The value placed on Benjamin West’s work has fluctuated greatly according to changing fashions over almost two hundred years, but his importance in both European and American art history cannot be denied. Although the Pennsylvania-born artist spent most of his life in London, for forty years almost every ambitious young American painter who had the chance traveled there to study with him including Rembrandt Peale and Thomas Sully. Almost all of West’s American students, most of whom then returned to the United States where they would lay the foundations for American art, remembered West’s generosity to them and conveyed their grateful recollections to their students. West’s long career and his prominent positions as the second president of the Royal Academy in London and history painter to George III made him an influential figure in the European movements of Neoclassicism and Romanticism. From the time of  his first professional work with the German Neoclassical painter Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779) in Rome in the early 1760s, West sought fame in history painting, which encompassed historical, religious, and literary subjects presented as moral lessons. He painted comparatively few portraits. In 1766, he painted his history painting Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (Yale Art Gallery, New Haven), which captured the attention of the English king and the rest of Europe, making it unnecessary for West to depend on portrait commissions to earn a living.