The Berger Collection

Collection: Benjamin West, PRA (1738-1820)

Benjamin West, PRA (1738-1820)

Benjamin West was born in 1738 into a large Quaker family not far from Philadelphia. He was the first American artist to achieve an international reputation and was a key figure in the development of Neoclassicism and Romanticism in Britain. He is claimed by scholars of both American and British art and is considered a British artist because he spent most of his career in London. He died there in 1820. West received his first training in portraiture, which was typical for the time both in America and England. In 1760, in his early twenties, West was taken up by two wealthy Philadelphia patrons who paid for him to travel to Italy to study. There he flourished under the tutelage of the important artists of the day. In Italy he began working in the genre of history painting, that is, a painting that illustrates a narrative either from history – especially from classical Greece and Rome – or mythology or religion, and in particular exalts the heroism of the protagonists against a foe. After three years he headed for England, intending only to stop over on his return to America. But the two paintings he exhibited in London upon his arrival caused a sensation and he was quite suddenly deluged with commissions from the highest levels of London society. Before long he had become England’s foremost history painter, and by the end of the 1760s he was named historical painter to the king with an annual stipend that freed him from having to take on portrait commissions. He continued to produce portraits of the royal family, however, including Six Children of George III from 1776 (in the British Royal Collection) and a portrait of George III from about 1783 (Cleveland Museum of Art), thought to have been painted as part of pair with that of Queen Charlotte in the Berger Collection. But it was as a history painter that West made his mark. The Death of General Wolfe, painted in 1770, is perhaps his best-known painting (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa). It depicts the dying moments of a general in the Battle of Quebec of 1759, and it was one of the first paintings to represent a recent event in the style of a history painting. West was a founding member of London’s Royal Academy in 1768 and named its second president, succeeding Sir Joshua Reynolds. In London his studio became something of a school for visiting artists from America and Britain who studied with the master or came only for advice.