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Lives Across The Pond: Benjamin West

Each month, beginning this month, we will feature a person included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography who was either born in the United States, and made their name in the UK, or came to the US from the British Isles.

We begin with Benjamin West, born in October 1738 in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, who became one of Hanoverian Britain’s, and America’s, most celebrated artists. West was born 268 years ago this week!

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Benjamin West (1738–1820), history painter, was born on 10 October 1738 in Springfield (now Swarthmore), Pennsylvania, the tenth and youngest child of John West (1690–1776), innkeeper, and his second wife, Sarah (1697–1756), daughter of Thomas Pearson of Marple, Pennsylvania … From a young age West seems to have had an unwavering belief in his own ability and a sense that he was predestined for fame.

… Good-natured, well-bred, and capable, West seemed easily to inspire the confidence of others. All his life he was unusually blessed with good fortune, and his arrival in August 1763 in London was no exception. He evidently expected to spend a short time there and then return to Philadelphia, but he was so well received as a self-taught prodigy who had studied in Italy, with the potential to become a great history painter in the tradition of Raphael (he was called the American Raphael by 1764), that he stayed for the rest of his life.

… West’s most famous picture, The Death of General Wolfe (1770; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), in the neo-classical tradition, was conceived as a history painting with the intention of morally uplifting its audience, but it is painted with the movement, drama, and more vivid colour associated with Romanticism. Furthermore, it marks a major departure in depicting a contemporary event as a highly dramatized (and therefore unusually self-conscious) history painting. Modern history painting had been attempted before, most notably by Francis Hayman, but without the impact of this picture.

Continue reading the Oxford DNB biography of Benjamin West

In addition to this biography, the Oxford DNB also offers a free ‘Life of the Day’ sent daily to your in-box, plus a range of topical lives in our free monthly Reading Room.

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