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An Artist of the West: Benjamin West

Ann Uhry Abrams is an author from Atlanta, Georgia who graduated from Georgia State University and received her Ph. D. from Emory University. In addition to writing The Valiant Hero: Benjamin West and Grand-style History Painting, she also wrote an account for a plane crash in 1962 that killed 130 people, The Explosion at Orly. Since writing those books, she has retired and devoted her time to research and writing. Dorinda Evans is from Maryland who received her Ph. D from the University of London in 1972. Other of her works include studies on Gilbert Stuart, another American artist, and today she holds the title Professor Emerita at Emory University.

To interpret any art, particularly Benjamin West’s colonial American artwork, one must look at the circumstances in which the art is produced. Influenced heavily by personal events as well as worldly events, Benjamin West incorporated elements of this influence into his art. In both Ann Uhry Abram’s The Valiant Hero: Benjamin West and Grand-style History Painting and Dorinda Evan’s Benjamin West and His American Students, West was influenced by personal and worldly events and became “unquestionably the world’s most famous American-born artist.”1 Benjamin West acts as an archetype of American colonial art who used an amalgam of neoclassicism and American influences to introduce a new brand of art.

In The Valiant Hero, Ann Uhry Abrams retells Benjamin West’s development as an artist from a young man to his eventual position as court painter for King George III. Abrams opens with an exposition of Benjamin West and an explanation of terms that she uses throughout her book. She describes the majority of West’s paintings as “narrative” paintings that as named, tell stories, often from a historical background. Also, she holds the claim that Benjamin West’s narrative paintings were among the first to receive public acclaim. Abrams continues with references to Benjamin West’s contemporary biographer John Galt, who wrote more of an apotheosis than a biography. Although Abrams admits that Galt’s “biography” is tainted with “fanciful juxtaposition of fact, fiction, and symbolic suggestion, a bizarre conglomeration even for an age accustomed to inflated prose”, she asserts that Galt may include key facts that reveal West’s situations in which he painted.2 In addition to exploring Galt’s biography, Abrams discusses the people and events that primarily influenced Benjamin West’s life – and subsequently his paintings. For example, Abrams suggests that West’s landscapes and backgrounds for his paintings were influenced heavily by William Williams, while the influence from John Valentine Haidt helped West incorporate “spiritual energy into many of his religious paintings.”3 In addition, West learned much about the classic Greek and Roman literature from William Smith, a philosopher who would later petition for Pennsylvania to switch from a proprietary colony to a royal colony. The teachings of William Smith would sink into Benjamin West’s own philosophy and art “in which subjects, such as Socrates, chose to face death rather than compromise fundamental principles.”4 Now that West had incorporated themes, religious imagery, and American-style landscapes into his paintings, he turned to Europe to add a hint of sophistication to his paintings. Touring Italy and Great Britain in the 1760s, West adapted a style that expressed a darker and more emotional complexion. Through these events, Abrams emphasizes that West’s art did not develop from one source but rather a variety of different sources which West used to develop his own unique style. This style included well-lit and focused foregrounds and darker and hazier backgrounds to create a theatrical effect.

Showing that West’s artwork has changed throughout the different stages of his lifetime, Abrams related each event of his life to artwork that he created during that time. At age eighteen, under the influence of William Smith, West learned about the suppression of free speech of Socrates and pledged to retain the preservation of ideals in his paintings. Therefore, his The Death of Socrates – a piece that would later inspire Jacques-Louis David – accentuated the right to free speech. In a way, West develops into a political commentator using subtle narrative paintings that would feature examples of failing human rights, such as in The Death of Socrates. West expresses that for some people, death supersedes the destruction of basic human rights. Other paintings such as The Choice of Hercules also have a background story behind them. While touring Europe, West longed to be married to his lover who still resided in Philadelphia; to depict his predicament, West painted The Choice of Hercules depicting Hercules choosing between vice and virtue, both depicted by women. Because West could not express his feelings in words, he “certainly could do so with paint,” inspiring many artists to follow in his footsteps.5 Perhaps West’s most important influencer was King George III, for whom West would become court painter. As the King’s court painter, West’s style embraced patriotism and heroic ideals and featured the most prolific painting of his lifetime – The Death of General Wolfe. The notion that West was a “history painter” may lead some to believe that the general’s death occurred as it appears in the painting; however, that is not true. West incorporates strong symbolism into his artwork more profoundly than accuracy. The painting, with its theatrical display does not seem to mourn the general’s death, but rather it venerates him as a hero and encourages others to be willing to give up their lives for the greater good. West’s occupation as the court painter ironically did cost him some of the rights that he had fought hard for though. As a subject of the King of Britain, West could not support the American War of Independence; as a result, he began to take neutral views of controversial events. Therefore, his artwork generally lacked opinion, but rather used symbols to show events.

While Abrams mainly focuses on West’s influences throughout his life, Dorinda Evans’ Benjamin West and His American Students focuses on the artists that Benjamin West himself influenced – his legacy. Dorinda Evans opens with an explanation of Benjamin West’s life featuring many of the same highlights as Abram’s exposition of Benjamin West, but then expands to the peers that studied under Benjamin West. Evans mentions that West “surprised his contemporaries by achieving his [special] effect without…Greek and Roman [depictions].”6 Evans draws parallels between the developing artists and the developing United States after winning its independence. However, unlike Ann Uhry Abrams, Dorinda Evans does not go chronologically through Benjamin West’s students in her book. Rather, she provides an overview of each artist taught by West and their personal histories. These artists are grouped into three generations, who all acquired different techniques and picked up different emotions or pieces from Benjamin West. Artists who studied under Benjamin West were sometimes unsure how to proceed, just as Benjamin West himself was unsure of his paint style. Evans describes artists and how these artists used West to explore their personal style.

Evans splits West’s students into three main generations, which she simply dubs the First Generation, Second Generation, and Third Generation. Evans notes West’s unusual enthusiasm and “optimism and in the personal interest he took in students, for he became a patient and generous benefactor in ways outside of pure instruction.”7 Because of his didactic nature, West had a knack of affecting his students. In the First Generation, artists such as Matthew Pratt began to assume the neoclassicism of West; however, these artists had nuances that distinguished their own art from that of West’s. The author, however, does not explicitly state the differences between the two generations other than the time in which Benjamin West taught these students. Perhaps the generations are separated by events in West’s own life, showing that he passes on different traits in different generations. Evans continues to list artist after artist and the great – or little – effects that West’s teachings had upon each of them. However, she does not refer much to Benjamin West’s own accomplishments and simply continues artist after artist in naming their individual accomplishments.

There is no doubt that both authors take different approaches in interpreting Benjamin West’s influence on society. Ann Uhry Abrams is an American author from Atlanta, Georgia who obtained her doctorate in interdisciplinary studies at Emory University. As an expert in interpreting artwork, Abrams uses her ethos as a Ph. D. to put forth the ideas in The Valiant Hero: Benjamin West and Grand-Style History Painting; her book is a mixture of research and her own interpretation of the artwork. As a result, she delves into deeper detail, such as the analysis of lighting in her book, certainly deeper than any common observer of the art could see it. As a proud Atlantan – she boasts that she has been living there her whole life – Abrams leans toward the more American side of West, stating that his paintings of heroism may have inspired American ideals and culture more than British ideas and culture. Abrams believes that West’s paintings were not only “’revolutionary’ but…[they] merged concepts of classicism with elements from modern life.”8 Because West captured modern life in his time, Abrams suggests that his ideas were as revolutionary as the American Revolution itself. Dorinda Evans, the author of Benjamin West and His American Students coincidentally teaches at Emory University in Georgia but received her Ph. D. from the University of London. As a result, Evans offers a different outlook of West. While she does maintain that Benjamin West was a prolific American artist, she emphasizes in her work that West had a greater combined British impact because of the influence on his students. Although West did have an effect on American culture, Evans maintains that West retains British customs and ideals in his artwork – a primary reason that his students were willing to incorporate his style into their own pieces. While both Abrams and Evans are American, their differing education affects their view on Benjamin West as an impact on both American and British society.

Consensus and neo-conservatism dominates Abrams’ The Valiant Hero, though it features some views of the New Left historiography. Abrams cites in her work that West fought for the ideals of the common man and cites The Death of Socrates as West’s subtle commentary and view on the protection of rights. As the Civil Rights movement through the 60s and 70s destroyed the consensus historiography of American, neo-conservatism helped restore some of that consensus in the 1980s. For example, Abrams believes that West exemplified not the divisions in American society but the unity of American heroism and democracy through his The Death of General Wolfe and The Death of Socrates. While the subjects of the works were not American, their actions, dying to protect their homeland and freedom, were noble and exemplified American values, values so embraced by neo-conservatism and consensus historiography. Dorinda Evans through her analysis of West’s students in Benjamin West and His American Students differs from consensus historiography. She asserts that American art was not influenced by one major linking force but rather the work of many individuals that developed a unique American style. Instead of emphasizing the work of just Benjamin West, Dorinda Evans mentions “a number of his protégés [that] influenced each other…and learned from their English contemporaries.”9 This focus on West’s students rather than the man himself expresses Evan’s interpretation of a melting pot of artists that ultimately created American art. While Evans maintains that American art was derivative of many sources, she still shows consensus historiography by admitting that many themes of American art remained the same. All in all, both authors use the neo-conservative and consensus historiography to interpret Benjamin West and his students.

Unfortunately, Ann Uhry Abrams’ work The Valiant Hero met with generally poor and sometimes scathing reviews. In an article of Eighteenth Century Studies, John Barrell concedes that the “book is, more or less, a biography” but also attacks Abrams for not expanding upon the heroism of Benjamin West. Although he is supposedly a hero, Barrell rhetorically asks through his review, Abrams’ review seems to merely list the events of his life. Citing the Choice of Hercules, Barrell says that “[Abrams] is determined that the painting should represent a correspondingly heroic choice in West’s life” but does not determine “what that choice might have been.”10 In essence, Barrell criticizes not the factual information presented in the work, but rather how Abrams’ interpretation of a hero is somewhat unconvincing to him. In another review from The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, David Tatham believes that while Abrams adequately shows West’s influence by London theaters, she does not apply West’s technique to other focal points of his artwork. For example, Tatham believes that Abrams’ use of “Grand-style…does not adequately define…the historical language of rhetoric.”11 In effect, Tatham shares a similar belief to Barrell in that Abrams’, while she produces a satisfactory biography of Benjamin West, does not cover some key ideas she holds in her title. However, Tatham agrees with Abrams that West was an animated man, rather than a bland man as “immediate followers” claim, and that his allegorical artwork may hold keys to a reassessment of the beginnings of neoclassical American art.

Although both works do an excellent job of interpreting Benjamin West’s artwork, they both present the author and his students in a somewhat unorganized manner. While Abrams does organize her thoughts chronologically, her explanation of West’s artwork takes many tangents and sometimes too eagerly explores his other art. However, Abrams recapitulates well with her thoughts on Benjamin West’s heroism and that his works were inspired by events from his own life. Her examples, including The Choice of Hercules were clear and showed the shifting trends in art at that point in West’s life. Like John Barrell said, however, her exposition of the last years of West’s life was not much of an analysis but rather a listing of events that occurred toward the end of his illustrious career. Dorinda Evans, on the other hand, never goes into any deep analysis of the artists that were impacted by Benjamin West. While Dorinda Evans does research on a variety of artists, she almost seems to list them and write only short excerpts on each one. Evans neither offers an in-depth analysis of each generation nor does she offer a prevailing theme in West’s American students. Rather, she leaves that up to the reader to interpret the American students. Although Evans acknowledges that Benjamin West was “truly [a] great teacher” because of his “patience and generosity,” she still maintains that each student branched differently from him.12 The problem, however, is that Evans, rather than forming any strong opinions, merely presents each artist for the reader to interpret. Both authors could have written more narrative style history which would have been more captivating by telling a story, rather than just listing events.

Benjamin West is the exemplary figure of the father of American art and his development as an artist almost symbolizes the American dream. Beginning from nothing, Benjamin West eventually worked himself up to become the court painter for King George III and truly the first great artist from America. Like Abrams and Evans believe, the story of West applies even to this day: that people should pursue their passions in order to succeed. Benjamin West’s unique style of mixing American landscapes with complex European neoclassicism led to the rise of American innovations in art and an art that would later develop into a national art form. Through Benjamin West, American art institutes like the Hudson River School and the much later Ashcan school would share the same exclusivity that West introduced to the artistic movement. Essentially, Benjamin West taught American artists to be independent from Europe, to develop their own styles, and to develop a unique American culture.

Abrams and Evans do not simply praise Benjamin West as a hero but as an individual who shaped his art around his paintings. Although both authors fell slightly short in interpreting Benjamin West’s art, they still provide an excellent overview of West’s influences as well as the people he influenced. West does not just represent American art but rather the American culture and dream.

1. Abrams, Ann Uhry. The Valiant Hero: Benjamin West and Grand-style History Painting. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1985. Print.
2. Abrams, Ann Uhry. 32.
3. Abrams, Ann Uhry. 53.
4. Abrams, Ann Uhry. 58.
5. Abrams, Ann Uhry. 98.
6. Evans, Dorinda. Benjamin West and His American Students. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery by the Smithsonian Institution, 1980. Print.
7. Evans, Dorinda. 22.
8. Abrams, Ann Uhry. 184.
9. Evans, Dorinda. 12.
10. Barrell, John. Eighteenth Century Studies 22.2 (1988): 279-81. Online journal.
11. Tatham, David. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 19.1 (1988): 155-156. Online journal.
12. Evans, Dorinda. 22.