BENJAMIN WEST: A Biography by Robert C. Alberts
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After 150 years of conspicuous neglect, the most celebrated painter of his day has finally had his likeness taken. Benjamin West (1738-1820), friend of George III and a founder of the Royal Academy, was a Pennsylvania innkeeper's son who--according to the legend he nurtured--drew a portrait of a sleeping infant at age seven without having seen a picture; learned to prepare colors from the Indians and made his first brush from the hairs of a cat's tail. In 1760 Rome, he was an exotic: ""Is he black or white?"" asked the aged, blind connoisseur Cardinal Albani. London opened its best doors to him, and within a week he'd met not only William Penn's son Thomas (later to commission Penn Signing the Treaty with the Indians) but also renowned landscapist Richard Wilson--and with him young Joseph Farington, foe- and ally-to-be, whose manuscript diary is a main source of Robert Alberts' vividly detailed biography. West will soon paint The Death of General Wolfe, insisting upon contemporary dress but refusing to allow the hero of Quebec to die ""like a common soldier under a bush""; and thereby launch historical painting in England. A procession of talented young Americans--Charles Willson Peale, John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, Washington Allston--will find comfort and aid under his roof, so that the French neoclassicist David can say (to Rembrandt Peale) that ""the best painters in London are Americans."" He will be a patriot during the American Revolution, a democrat throughout the French upheavals, and still keep the trust of unsteady King George (whose lapses into madness are poignantly depicted here). And--at rather daunting length--he will ride through the batties of the Royal Academy and emerge the weary victor, a little indulged and greatly appreciated. It's hard to escape the conclusion of his contemporaries that West's equanimity has something of the phlegmatic about it, but Alberts has done a masterful job of establishing the (clouded) facts, conveying the rancor, setting the disparate scenes, and tracing the course of the faltering, now re-established reputation--all, it appears, without benefit of academic affiliation or major foundation grant.

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 1978
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin