Recently, I have been looking into the life and work of Benjamin West, the first American painter of international renown. A portrait that was loaned to Colonial Williamsburg a few years ago is in question regarding its attribution as it was one of his early works while he still lived in America. The portrait, depicting Severn Eyre of the illustrious and wealthy Eyre family on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, dates to somewhere between 1749-1759. Due to the time (as Benjamin West was born in 1738 and would had to be between the age of 11-21 when he painted this) and the location (as West primarily painted only in Pennsylvania and briefly in New York before going abroad and never returning), the attribution is questioned. So, I was to look into the whereabouts of Benjamin West during this time and see if it was remotely possible that this portrait may have actually been done by him.
Benjamin West (1738-1820) was born near Swarthmore, Pennsylvania to an innkeeper. Though his parents attended Meeting, they did not belong to the Society of Friends until later, when West was already in England. In a painting from 1772 when he was visited by family in England, West depicts his family in the simple and modest clothing of Quakers while he depicts his wife, children, and himself wearing lavish and fashionable clothing, standing out from his half-brother and father who sit before him. He was encouraged to pursue his talents from a young age, despite the fact that Quakers generally disapprove of portrait painting. Nevertheless, according to the legends written by Benjamin West’s biographer, John Galt, he made his first likeness at the age of 6-7 and soon caught the attention of rich and well-connected men who stayed at his family’s tavern, gaining patronage that would bring him to Lancaster, PA and then to Philadelphia. There, he was introduced to the professional painter William Williams who inspired him to pursue painting as a career. While in Lancaster in 1755-56, he paints “Death of Socrates,” his first history painting, something that he would pursue for the rest of his life. In 1756, he attracted the attention of Dr. William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia (now UPenn), and had a program focusing on classical learning specially devised for West, something which would encourage his imagination and influence his history paintings in the future. After meeting William Kelly in New York (where he moved in 1758 in search of higher fees for his paintings), he is given 50 pounds for a voyage to Italy, where he is to study the masters and improve upon his skill.
In 1760, Benjamin West sets sail for Europe and never returns to America, though it always holds a dear place in his heart and vocally introduces himself as American to many of those he meets in Europe. After three years in Italy studying the masters and learning from Anton Raphael Mengs, he travels to London, where he sets up shop and establishes himself. In less than three years, he becomes close friends with both Benjamin Franklin (who later becomes the godfather of his second son) and King George III. Soon, he is appointed a charter member of the Royal Academy of Arts where he is able to display his paintings and establish great renown. He is appointed the History Painter to King George III in 1772 and then the Surveyor of the King’s Paintings in 1791. In 1792 he is elected the second president of the Royal Academy, a position he serves for 28 years (apart from a yearlong blip where he attempts to retire but is unsatisfied by the new president’s work so he takes over a second time in 1806).
All of this is to show that Benjamin West was highly regarded for his adept skill at painting and his creative and revolutionary outlook on history painting. Before West, history painters depicted their subjects in classical garb, something that was a key pillar of the neoclassical style. However, West decided to depict historical scenes with greater accuracy and in time-period appropriate attire. For instance, his most famous work “The Death of General Wolfe” depicts a scene from 1759 in the French and Indian War, with the subjects all wearing their military attire. This accuracy and realism changed the tide for history painters and, while he did face backlash initially, influenced many painters who came after him. Benjamin West is often known as the Father of American Painting, as he took many fledgling American artists under his wing, including John Singleton Copley, Charles Wilson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, and Thomas Sully. The list goes on, but it is clear that the influence of Benjamin West extends beyond the 400+ works that he produced.
As I wrap up the last few days of my internship here, I am still trying to find out whether or not Benjamin West could have painted the portrait of Severn Eyre, attempting to place him in Virginia or Eyre in Philadelphia. Stay tuned!