Benjamin West

Dates1738 - 1820

One of ten children of a rural Pennsylvania innkeeper, Benjamin West was the first American artist to achieve an international reputation. Despite living in England, West profoundly influenced American painting, teaching three generations of his countrymen.

Meeting a British portraitist changed nine-year-old West's life: "Most undoubtedly had not [he] been settled in Philadelphia I should not have embraced painting as a profession," he later wrote. In 1760, wealthy Philadelphians sent West to Italy, where his charm, good looks, and letters of introduction opened the doors to Rome's artistic society. He saw Renaissance and ancient art, while contemporary Neoclassical painters fueled his enthusiasm for antiquity.

When West visited England in 1763, his paintings caused a sensation. He stayed and soon became England's leading Neoclassical painter. In 1771, defying precedent, he depicted recent history in modern dress rather than in ancient costume in a painting widely regarded as a marvel. King George III immediately named him the royal history painter.

Co-founder of the Royal Academy, West accepted its presidency in 1792. Supporting America's revolutionaries did not strain his relationship with the English monarch, but praising Napoleon Bonaparte and visiting Paris in 1802 earned the cancellation of his royal stipend.