Neoclassic and Romantic painter and draftsman
(Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, 1738 - 1820, London, England)
Born in Springfield, Pennsylvania (which is now Swarthmore) in 1738 to a poor innkeeper, West began to draw and paint at the age of eight. By 1756 he was both a sign painter and a portrait painter. In 1759 some of his patrons sponsored a trip to Italy. During his three years there, West studied in Florence, Rome, Bologna, and Venice. He was influenced by antique Greek and Roman monuments, High Renaissance masters, and the new neo-classical style which was taugt by Raphael Mengs.
West visited Paris and then settled in London in 1763. He painted "Agrippa Landing at Brindisium With the Ashes of Germanius" for the Archbishop of York who showed it to King George III. The king then commissioned "The Departure of Regulus". In 1770 West painted the famous "Death General Wolfe" which impressed both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The importnace of this painting lies in West's choice to depict the figures in contemporary clothing rather than classical which was a revolutionary change in historical painting. By 1772 West had been appointed the king's Painter of Historical Pictures. A charter member of the Royal Academy, in 1792 West succeeded Joshua Reynolds as its second president. He held this office until his death with the exception of one three year interruption. West assisted or instructed many young artists including Matthew Pratt, Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, Gilbert Stuart, Samuel F.B. Morse, Robert Fulton, Washington Allston, John Trumbull, and John Singleton Copley. As artistic tastes changed, West became less popular, but he was still important in his early understanding of Neo-Classicism and Romanticism and was a leader of what is now called 'the Grand Manner' style. Although he worked in England, because of his American origins, he is claimed as 'the father of American painting.'
(This information is based on a review of the Alberts biography (see below) by Jules Prown in the New York Times Book Review, November 26, 1978)
For further reading on West's biography, see:
Gault, John. Life, Studies, and works of Benjamin West, Esq. 1820
Alberts, Robet C. Benjamin West: A Biography. 1978
Some information from Getty's Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN)