Benjamin West, his times and his influence

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6 November 2015

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Benjamin West paintings


            Benjamin West was an Anglo-American artist who was born on October 10, 1738 in Springfield Pennsylvania in the present day campus of Swarthmore College in a house now called the borough of Swarthmore. He was the tenth child of John West and Sarah Pearson. Benjamin died on March 11, 1820 in London at the age of 81. During his time, he concentrated in artwork. He left a great mark through his historical artwork. The artwork by Benjamin West made during the days of exploration and during the American struggle for independence helps us greatly in understanding the history of the Americans. In his artwork, West used an artistic style he termed as “epic representation”, which entailed the use of expressive figures, compositional schemes and colors to make it easy for the observer to identify the scene easily.Benjamin West did his first painting in 1745 when he was only 7 years old. He was left to look after his sister’s infant daughter while the sister and mother were working on the flower garden. He was impressed by the smiling baby and took a paper and a pen which were on the table and made the first painting work. When the mother and sister came back, they saw the painting and were very much impressed for it really resembled the young kid. Benjamin’s mother appreciated him and this developed confidence in him even though he had initially tried to hide the paper from his mother. He later interacted with the Native Americans who taught him how to make paint from riverbank clay mixed with bear grease in a pot. Little was it expected that this would turn out to be his line of professional his life. He best fitted in this area mainly because he was not well endorsed with formal education (West and Charles 1950).Benjamin West excelled in painting and storing the American and English history such that studying the American or English literature may not be very possible without mentioning or referring to the work of Benjamin West. His artwork remains a very crucial source of American literature for he was able to store history at a time when means of history keeping were not so well established. He stored the life of the Americans before America attained self-governance in his paintings.

            Benjamin west painted portraits in Pennsylvania from 1746 to 1759 where he designed the ‘death of Socrates’ from an engraving in Charles Rollin’s ancient work. This work latter came to be credited as “the most ambitious and interesting painting produced in colonial America”. Because of his great artworks, West interacted with many great people such as Dr. William Smith who was the provost, college of Philadelphia and Benjamin Franklin, who was an outstanding American statesman who played a great role in America’s struggle for self-governance. It is from this close interaction that Benjamin West painted Benjamin Franklin’s portrait.

            In his interactions, West met several painters from whom he learnt more painting techniques. Hemet John Wollaston, a painter from London from whom he learnt how to paint the shimmer of silk and satin. He also learnt from him the style of putting big almond shaped eyes to all his artwork. Later on, West was sponsored and travelled to Italy where he furthered his painting skills by copying Italian paintings (Helmut and Allen 1986)

            On his way back to America, West decided to pay a visit to England, though; his visit turned to a stay when he met William Allen who had sponsored him to Italy. They stayed together for a month, and latter visited his half-brother Thomas west. In England, he continued with his paintings. He painted his first picture in England, Angelica and Medora, and was shown at the exhibition in spring gardens in 1764 together with Cymon and Iphigia, which he had painted in Rome. Benjamin West married an American, Elizabeth Shewell, in 1765 at St Martin-in-the-Fields. While in England, he was introduced to senior clergymen such as Thomas Newton who was the bishop of Bristol, James Johnson, who was the bishop of Worcester, Robert Hay Drummond who was the Archbishop of York, among others.

            These clergymen commissioned work for Benjamin west. He proposed to decorate St Paul’s cathedral with paintings, however, his proposal was rejected by the bishop of London. He then proposed to paint an altarpiece for St Stephen Walbrook and his proposal was accepted. For his great works in England, West came to be named, “American Raphael”

            Drummond once tried to make west give up portraiture and devote himself to more ambitious composition. He tried to convince the king to patronize Benjamin West, however; things didn’t work out well for him. The king gave him the first commission of painting the departure of Regulus from Rome. West was soon on very good terms with the king because of his great work. They held lengthy discussions about the state of art in England, and that is when the idea of establishing a royal college began. In 1768, the college was established, and Joshua Reynolds became its first president. In 1772, Benjamin West was appointed by King George as the historical painter to the court at a fee of £1,000 annually. He made many historical paintings among them a set of 28 works for a chapel at the castle with the theme “the progress of revealed religion” and nine portraits of royal family members, two been for the king. From 1791 to his death, Benjamin West remained the surveyor of the king’s picture.One of the greatest paintings of Benjamin West was the death of General Wolfe, made in 1770 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771. This painting raised mixed reactions when it was exhibited. Joshua Reynolds, the then president of the Royal academy, termed it as overambitious. However; the painting became one of the most frequently reproduced images. This painting was a demonstration of the French and Indian war, showing of his general Johnson saving a wounded French officer from the Tomahawk of a North American Indian in 1768. Other historic paintings of Benjamin West include the death of Nelson which was made in honor of Horatio Nelson, who died at the battle of Trafalgar.

            When Reynolds died in 1792, West became the president of the Royal Academy up to 1805 when he resigned and was replaced by James Wyatt. One year later, he was re-elected the Academy president and served the president until his death. The fact that West was serving as the president of the Royal Academy in London had a significant effect to the Americans. Many American artists such as Augustus Earle, Ralph Earl, Samuel Morse, Charles Wilson, Mathew Pratt, among others, studied under him in London (Wetton & Jarvis, 1821)Benjamin West also did a series of religious paintings. He painted his first religious artwork Christ healing the sick at the beginning of the 19th century, which he intended to present as a gift to a Quaker hospital in Philadelphia. However, it dint happen as he had planned for he later sold the artwork to a British company at £3,000. The organization presented it to the National Gallery. West later on made a copy to send to Philadelphia.

            The outcome of that painting led him to doing even larger religious works such as death on a pale horse which was exhibited in 1817. He also made artistic representation of the conversion of Paul in his modeling of the altarpiece at St Paul’s church in Birmingham.In his life, Benjamin west demonstrated a very strong sense of determination. Despite the fact that he was not so much educated, he still worked hard and emerged as one of the great painters of his time. He was not the kind to give up easily on a task he had set forth to undertake.Despite Drummond’s attempt to make him give up portraiture and entirely devote himself to more ambitious compositions, he never gave in to Drummond’s wishes. Drummonds plot to convince the king to patronize him latter ended up strengthening the relationship between Benjamin West and the king. It is the same relationship that led to the establishment of the Royal Academy which turned out to be an important institution to both the English people and the Americans. He ended up serving as the president of the Academy until he died at his house in London on 11th march 1820.

            When he exhibited his painting, the death of General Wolfe, it was termed as overambitious. This, however, did not hinder him from exhibiting it, and it latter turned out to be one of the most frequently reproduced images of the time.

            Benjamin West proposed a project to decorate St Paul’s cathedral in 1766 though his proposal was rejected by the bishop of London, he didn’t give up making other proposals. Eventually, his proposal to paint an altarpiece for St Stephen Walbrook was approved.Benjamin was a man of determination and the desire to achieve whose success mainly originated from his character of not giving in to discouragements and opposition. This determination helped him and helped his people.

            Benjamin’s personal interests are clearly portrayed in his artwork. It is apparent that he had an interest in political and leadership affairs. In his lifetime, he had encounters with many leaders and statesmen such as Benjamin Franklin and King George

            The encounter with leaders and statesmen had a great impact on his artwork. He painted the portraits of these statesmen and of the Royal family which remain important up to date. He also made paintings at the state structures such as the paintings at St George’s hall at Windsor castle.

            The passion for adventure is clearly portrayed when Benjamin goes to Italy and on his way back to America he visits England where he settles and never goes back to America. This adventure helps him advance his painting and artwork skills. He copies the artwork of Italians such as Titian and Raphael.

            In his lifetime, he demonstrated his interest in religion by doing religious painting and interacting with the members of the clergy. The artwork, Christ healing the sick, shows that he was a Christian and believed in the power of healing. He also made an artistic impression of the conversion of Paul at St Paul’s church. This religious nature made him do numerous religious paintings

            His first religious work, Christ healing the sick, was originally intended to be a gift to a quacker hospital in Philadelphia. This shows that he was a charitable man, and this made him make gift paintings.

            It is also apparent that West was a historian who was studying history and recording history to be used in the future. He painted images of social, political and religious history. His painting, presentation of the queen of Sheba at the court of King Solomon, is from biblical history. He also painted William Penn’s treaty with the Indians. This was a historic treaty that was believed to have been signed many years back. This interest in history opened up areas in which he could draw paintings.

            Benjamin was also a very social man. In his life, he interacted with so many people with whom he shared ideas and who helped him nurture and improved his painting skills. This can be traced right back from when he was a young boy, and he interacted with the Native Americans who taught him how to make paint. Later on in his life he interacted with people from all backgrounds. He met artists, clergymen, political leaders, traders such as gunsmiths and many more categories of people. This exposure not only earned him the knowledge in artwork, but it also opened up chances of creating a market for his painting skills. He painted portraits of the leaders he interacted with, made religious painting for the churches after interacting with the church leaders.

            Benjamin West’s paintings help us understand the American literature and the kind of life they lived before attaining independence. The fact that he made a painting and entitled it “Christ Healing the sick”, is enough to convince us that the Americans were Christians even during their pre-colonial period

            Benjamin West’s painting, William Penn’s treaty with the Indians, helps us understand that the American had interacted with the Indians even before America attained freedom. It also portrays the peaceful and the welcoming nature of the Americans during this time.It is also evident that America had not fully embraced formal education during the colonial period. People used to attend informal schools where they learnt technical skills such as painting. In his painting, Benjamin Franklin drawing electricity from the sky, painted in 1816, we learn that the American attempts to develop energy begun as early as the 19th century. This painting and others he did have proved to be of great importance in tracing the history and literature of America

            It is, therefore, clear that even in his grave; Benjamin West will always be remembered for his contribution in creating references for the American literature and political, social and religious history of the Americans (Dillen , John & Benjamin West, 1997).


Dillen Berger, John. Benjamin West: the context of his life and work, particular attention to his artwork with religious subject, including a correlated version of the nineteenth- century West’s paintings, exhibitions, and sales records, and alas. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1977.

Helmut von, and Allen Staley. The paintings of Benjamin West. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

Meyer, Jerry D.. The religious paintings of Benjamin West: a study in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century moral sentiment. Austin: cy, 1973-1974.

The life of Benjamin West. London: Wetton & Jarvis, 1821.

West, Benjamin, and Charles H. Morgan. Benjamin West, his times and his influence: an exhibition, May 9-30, 1950.

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