Historical Markers
Benjamin West Historical Marker
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Benjamin West

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
PA 320 in Swarthmore

Dedication Date:
February 3, 1948

Behind the Marker

One of America's best-known painters, Benjamin West was born in humble circumstances to an innkeeper in Springfield, Chester County (now Swarthmore, Delaware County). His two most famous works - "William Penn's Treaty with the Indians" (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) and "The Death of General Wolfe" (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) - have helped to define the way we view our history. But West left America for England at the age of twenty-five and became fiercely loyal to his new homeland. He lived in England from 1763 until his death fifty-seven years later and became Britain's most famous painter of grand historical scenes.

The story West told later in life about being taught painting by local Indians should be taken with a grain of salt: not only had Indians vanished from Chester County long before his birth, but he studied and was influenced by colonial artists John Wollaston, Robert Feke, and especially John Valentine Haidt - a Moravian painter whose monumental "The First Fruits" suggested the grand scale of West's historical paintings. After painting several good portraits of well-to-do Pennsylvanians, in 1760 West was sent to Italy to study, thanks to the Rev. William Smith, provost of new College of Philadelphia (now University of Pennsylvania) which West briefly attended. After three years on the continent, West moved to England, which became his permanent home.
A colorful pop art interpretation of the William Penn treaty. Penn offers gifts to Native Americans in the foreground and a ship is close to shore in the background.
The William Penn Treaty, by Jack Savitsky, 1982.
A red, white, and blue sky is the setting for this interpretation of the William Penn Treaty. A ship can be seen docking close to shore. Penn and his entourage are wearing colorful clothing, as they meet with the Indians and trade gifts.
The William Penn Treaty, by Edward Hicks, c 1800-1805.
A red, white, and blue skyline is the setting for the oil on canvas painting of William Penn offering gifts to the Native Americans.
Penn's Treaty with the Indians, by Benjamin West, 1771-72.

West is best known in the United States for his painting of William Penn's "Treaty with the Indians," a work commissioned in 1771 by Pennsylvania proprietor Thomas Penn at a time when province agent marker Benjamin Franklin and his supporters were agitating for a royal government. Penn wanted the painting to show that Pennsylvania had flourished for three-quarters of a century of peace thanks to his father's wise policies.

Since there is only one sketch of the mature Penn who, as a Quaker, did not believe in having his portrait painted, West painted Penn and his entourage using the images and clothing of prosperous mid-eighteenth century London Quakers. Folk artists markerEdward Hicks and, in our own time, Jack Savitsky of Carbon County have used West's painting as the basis of their own works to present their own hopes that Pennsylvania would once again be a "Society of Friends."

Beautiful oil on canvas painting of Death, depicted as a black cloaked man riding a pale white horse. Preyed upon fallen people are lying on the ground. To the left of the image are warriors battling a lion. And to the right of the image a king rides a white horse.
Death on a Pale Horse
West's other great American painting, also done in England, is "The Death of General Wolfe," which depicts the dying general learning of his success in 1759 on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec. With Wolfe looking much like the dead Christ being removed from the cross, surrounded by representatives of the empire -Scotsmen, Englishmen, and Indian -whose victory he has assured, West's vision marked the peak of mid-eighteenth-century British imperialism, whose Protestant champions identified it with the cause of God. (West executed a similar painting of "The Death of Lord Nelson" in 1806.) The painting created a sensation: West was appointed "History Painter" to King George III in 1772 and executed more than sixty paintings for the monarch. A founding member of the British Royal Academy (of Art) in 1792, he usually served as its president until his death in 1820.

For most of his life, West painted grand historical and biblical paintings, of which "Christ Rejected" and "Death on the Pale Horse," belonging to the markerPennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, are representative and "Saul and the Witch of Endor," at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, is one of the best. Several painters whose portraits of revolutionary leaders and history scenes, including Charles Willson Peale, Rhode Island's Gilbert Stuart, and Connecticut's John Trumbull, all studied with West in London. Trumbull's "Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill" (Yale Art Gallery, New Haven) is clearly modeled on West's "The Death of General Wolfe."

Despite or perhaps because of his lowly origins, West's arrogance and greed were as monumental as his canvasses. He turned down a knighthood because he thought he deserved a hereditary peerage. Commissioned in 1800 by the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia to execute a large canvas of "Christ Healing the Sick," he sold it instead to the British Institution, forerunner of the National Gallery, for 3000 guineas, reputedly the largest sum ever paid to an artist for a single work.

Before he died, West found his paintings the butt of mockery by the Romantics who preferred a more intimate scale and more emotionally expressive works: "only great by the acre" is how William Hazlitt judged West. Ironically, today he is best remembered for two early works that have become principal symbols of the continent he rejected.
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