Benjamin West, an Anglo-American painter, born of Quaker parents in Springfield, Pa., Oct. 10, 1738, died in London, March 11, 1820. He began to make colored drawings from nature in his seventh year, and in his ninth composed a picture which 67 years afterward he asserted contained touches never surpassed by him. He received elementary instructions in Philadelphia, and practised his art in that city and the neighboring towns, and afterward in New York, chiefly as a portrait painter. In 1760 he went to Italy, where his portrait of Lord Grantham, at first generally attributed to Raphael Mengs, attracted considerable attention. He visited the chief Italian art capitals, and at Rome painted "Cimon and Iphigenia" and "Angelica and Medora," which were well received. In 1763 he went to London on his way to America, but was induced to take up his residence in that city, where in 1765 he married Elizabeth Shewell, a young American woman to whom he had been previously attached, and who joined him in England at his request. A successful picture representing Agrippina landing with the ashes of Germanicus was the means of introducing him to George III., for whom he painted the "Departure of Regulus," and who for nearly 40 years was his friend and patron.
During a career of almost unvarying prosperity, he painted or sketched about 400 pictures, many of which are of great size, besides leaving upward of 200 drawings at his death. One of his early pictures, the " Death of Wolfe," widely known through the fine engraving of Woollett, may be said to have created an era in the history of British art, from the fact that the figures were habited in the costume appropriate to their time and character. The experiment of substituting modern for classical costumes was considered hazardous, and Sir Joshua Reynolds and others endeavored to dissuade the painter from it; but he persevered, and Reynolds was one of the first to congratulate him on his success. He painted for George III. a number of subjects taken from early English history, and projected a grand series of works illustrating the progress of revealed religion for the chapel at Windsor castle, of which 28 were executed. After the superannuation of the king the commission was cancelled. He then began a new series of religious pieces.
The first, " Christ Healing the Sick," was intended as a present to the Pennsylvania hospital in Philadelphia; but it was purchased for £3,000 by the British institute, and a copy with some alterations was sent by West to Philadelphia. The most remarkable picture of this series was "Death on the Pale Horse," from Revelation, exhibited in London in 1817. Among his battle pieces was the "Battle of La Hogue," one of his best pictures. In 1792 he succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as president of the royal academy, declining the honor of knighthood. He retired from that post in 1802, but was reelected a year later, and retained the office until his death. The extraordinary reputation once enjoyed by West was largely due to the facility with which he worked, and to the academic correctness of his designs. His pictures are chiefly remarkable for composition, the coloring being of a uniform reddish brown tint, in no respect resembling nature. Few artists have shown so little individuality and such an equality of merit.
Many of his works have been engraved by Woollett, Sharpe, Hall, Heath, and others.