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Jul/Aug 2008

Benjamin West’s ABacchante

Author Affiliations


Arch Facial Plast Surg. 2008;10(4):296-297. doi:10.1001/archfaci.10.4.296

Benjamin West (1738-1820) was the first American artist to achieve an international reputation as an academic history painter. He was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, into a nonobservant Quaker family. West began his artistic career as a portraitist working in the dry, flat portrait style of his colonial contemporaries. However, in 1756 he painted the Death of Socrates(private collection), an awkward, amateurish first attempt at a heroic subject. The wooden figures gesture affectedly, and the awkward rendering of the figures' anatomy betrays West's lack of formal artistic training. Nevertheless, the painting earned West the esteem of Rev William Smith of the College of Philadelphia, who mentored the young painter in classics. While in Philadelphia, he met several important patrons, who financed his 3-year trip to Italy in 1760. In Rome, West became acquainted with the leading Neoclassical painters of the day, including Anton Raphael Mengs, who encouraged West to study classical sculpture and the works of the Venetian and Bolognese masters. On his return to America in 1763, West stopped in England, where he showed several of his Neoclassical history paintings at the Society of Artists in London. The positive reception of these works influenced West's decision to remain in England, where he hoped to secure a position at the court of King George III. In 1768 he painted his majestic Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus(Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut) for the Archbishop of York. This scene, described in Tacitus's early history of the Roman Empire, shows the young widow Agrippina disembarking in Italy with the ashes of her fallen husband, the commander and adopted son of Emperor Tiberius. West's friezelike procession, led by the sorrowing Agrippina, is a model of quiet, dignified female grief and demonstrates his assimilation of the high classical style of Nicolas Poussin and the Scottish painter Gavin Hamilton, whom West met on his trip to Rome. George III admired the painting, and in 1769, he commissioned West to paint another heroic episode from the Roman Republic, the Departure of Regulus from Rome(Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II), depicting the Roman consul Regulus, resolutely returning to Carthage to face certain death after persuading the Senate to refuse the terms of his release. The king awarded West the position of history painter to the king and awarded him several important commissions. West was also one of the founding members of the Royal Academy in London and later succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as its second president.

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