Benjamin West

Benjamin West  was born at Springfield, Pennsylvania, October 10, 1738. His father was a merchant, and Benjamin was the tenth child. The first six years of his life passed away in calm uniformity, leaving only the placid remembrance of enjoyment. In the month of June, 1745, one of his sisters who was married, came with her infant daughter to spend a few days at her father's. When the child was asleep in her cradle, Mrs. West invited her daughter to gather flowers in the garden, and committed the infant to the care of Benjamin, during their absence; giving him a fan to drive away the flies from molesting his little charge.

After some time, the child happened to smile in its sleep, and its beauty attracted the boy's attention. He looked at it with a pleasure, which he never before experienced; and observing some paper on a table, together with pens, and red and black ink, he seized them with agitation, and endeavored to delineate a portrait, although at this period, he was only in the seventh year of his age.

Hearing the approach of his mother and sister, he endeavored to conceal what he had been doing; but the old lady observing his confusion, inquired what he was about, and requested him to show her the paper. He obeyed, entreating her not to be angry. Mrs. West, after looking at the drawing with evident pleasure, said to her daughter, "I declare, he has made a likeness of little Sally;" she kissed him with much fondness and satisfaction. This encouraged him to say that if it would give her any pleasure, he would make pictures of the flowers which she held in her hand; for the instinct of his genius was now awakened, and he felt that he could imitate the forms of those things which pleased his sight.

Christ healing the sick.

Some time after this, Benjamin having heard that pencils for painting were made in Europe of camel's hair, determined to manufacture a substitute, for his own use: accordingly, seizing upon a black cat, kept in the family, he extracted the requisite hairs from her tail for his first brush, and afterwards pillaged it again for others.

Such was the commencement of a series of efforts which raised West to be a favorite painter in England, and, at last, president of the Royal Academy of London. His parents were Quakers, but they encouraged his efforts. He, however, had no advantages, and for some time he was obliged to pursue his labors with such pencils as he made himself, and with red and yellow colors, which he learned to prepare from some Indians who roamed about the town of Springfield: to these, his mother added a little indigo.

He had a cousin by the name of Pennington, who was a merchant, and having seen some of his sketches, sent him a box of paints and pencils, with canvass prepared, and six engravings. The possession of this treasure almost prevented West's sleeping. He now went into a garret as soon as it was light, and began his work. He was so wrapt up in his task, as to stay from school. This he continued till his master called to inquire what had become of him. A search was consequently made, and he was found at his easel, in the garret. His mother's anger soon subsided, when she saw his picture, now nearly finished. He had not servilely copied one of the engravings, as might have been expected, but had formed a new picture by combining the parts of several of them. His mother kissed the boy with rapture, and procured the pardon of his father and teacher. Mr. Galt, who wrote West's life, says, that, sixty-seven years after, he had the pleasure of seeing this very piece, hanging by the side of the sublime picture of Christ Rejected.

Young West's fame was soon spread abroad, and he was shortly crowded with applications for portraits, of which he painted a considerable number. He was now of an age to require a decision of his parents in respect to the profession he was to follow, in life. They deliberated long and anxiously upon this subject, and at last concluded to refer the matter to the society of Quakers to which they belonged. These decided, that, although they did not acknowledge the utility of painting to mankind, yet they would allow the youth to follow a path for which he had so evident a genius.

At the age of eighteen, he established himself in Philadelphia, as a portrait painter, and afterwards spent some time at New York, in the same capacity. In both places, his success was considerable. In 1760, aided by friends, he proceeded to Italy, to study his art; in 1763, he went to London, where he soon became established for life. The king, George III., was his steadfast friend, and he became painter to his majesty. He was offered a salary of seven hundred pounds a year, by the Marquis of Rockingham, to embellish his mansion at Yorkshire with historical paintings, but this he declined.

On the death of Sir Joshua Reynolds, he was elected president of the Royal Academy, and took his place in March, 1792. In his sixty-fifth year, he painted his great picture of Christ healing the sick, to aid the Quakers of Philadelphia in the erection of a hospital for that city. It was so much admired that he was offered no less than fifteen thousand dollars for this performance. He accepted the offer, as he was not rich, upon condition that he should be allowed to make a copy for the Friends of Philadelphia, for whom he had intended it. This great picture, of which we give an engraving, was long exhibited at Philadelphia, and the profits essentially aided the benevolent object which suggested the picture.

West continued to pursue his profession, and painted several pictures of great size, under the idea that his talent was best suited to such performances. In 1817, his wife, with whom he had long lived in uninterrupted happiness, died, and he followed her in 1820. If his standing, as an artist, is not of the highest rank, it is still respectable, and his history affords a striking instance of a natural fitness and predilection for a particular pursuit. If we consider the total want of encouragement to painting, in a Quaker family, in a country town in Pennsylvania, more than a century ago, and advert to the spontaneous display of his taste and its persevering cultivation, we shall see that nature seems to have given him an irresistible impulse in the direction of the art to which he devoted his life.

West was tall, firmly built, and of a fair complexion. He always preserved something of the sedate, even and sober manners of the sect to which his parents belonged; in disposition, he was mild, liberal and generous. He seriously impaired his fortune by the aid he rendered to indigent young artists. His works were very numerous, and the exhibition and sale of those in his hands, at the time of his death, yielded a handsome sum to his family. Though his early education was neglected, he supplied the defect by study and observation, and his writings connected with the arts are very creditable to him as a man, a philosopher and an artist.