Benjamin West PRA (1738 - 1820)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

A Founder member of the Royal Academy who became its second president, Benjamin West was an American artist who arrived in London aged 25 and decided to stay.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1738, Benjamin West developed an interest in art at a young age. Despite having little formal training he managed to establish himself as a portrait painter in Philadelphia and won the support of local patrons who funded his travel to Europe, making him the first American artist to visit Italy. West spent three years copying masterpieces by Titian, Raphael and others before arriving in London. He planned to visit Britain briefly before returning to America, but ended up staying for the rest of his life.

West quickly established friendships with a number of influential Londoners and secured the patronage of the Archbishop of York who in turn introduced him to King George III. In 1768, West joined Reynolds and other leading artists and architects in an appeal to the King for support in establishing the Royal Academy of Arts. The King agreed and the Academy was founded in December that year with Reynolds as President.

In 1771, West exhibited The Death of General Wolfe at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition. The work was innovative in presenting a relatively recent event - the 1759 Battle of Quebec – in the manner of a classical history painting. Controversially, West depicted the figures wearing modern military uniform rather than classical robes. An engraving of the painting allowed reproductions to be sold and it became one of the most commercially successful prints ever published.

The following year, King George III made West his official history painter. Over the next few decades West completed a number of major paintings of historical, mythological and religious scenes, including subjects reflecting his American roots like Penn’s Treaty With The Indians. When Reynolds died in 1792, West was elected the second president of the Royal Academy. The King offered him a knighthood but West turned it down, apparently in the mistaken belief that he might be offered a peerage instead.

In 1802, when the Treaty of Amiens halted the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France, West visited France and exhibited his Death on a Pale Horse in the Paris Salon. It was seen by Napoleon, who admired it and met briefly with West. This trip proved costly for the artist though as, afterwards, he fell out of favour with King George III who cancelled his annual stipend along with a prestigious commission.

West briefly resigned as President of the RA in 1805 and was replaced by the architect James Wyatt, but within a year, Wyatt had conceded the presidency back to West. In his later years, West often painted religious works, including Christ Healing the Sick, commissioned by a Quaker hospital back in Philadelphia. He also collaborated with the author John Galt on a biography that presents him as a self-taught master and devoted royal subject. West died in 1820 and is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Profile

Royal Academician

Foundation Member

Born: 10 October 1738 in Springfield, Pennsylvania, United States

Died: 11 March 1820

Nationality: American

Elected RA: 10 December 1768

President from: 1792 - 1805, 1806 - 1820

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Painting

Works by Benjamin West in the RA Collection

Works after Benjamin West in the RA Collection

Works associated with Benjamin West in the RA Collection

Associated books

Associated archives