The Great House of Benjamin West: Family, Workshop, and National Identity in Late Georgian England
Fox, Abram Jacob
Pressly, William L
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Anglo-American painter Benjamin West (1738-1820) holds a unique position in the history of Western art. Active during the foundational periods of not one, but two, national schools of art to which he could rightfully claim membership, West recognized his inimitable position in the development of English and American art and sought to position himself at the forefront of each nation. This dissertation examines his fluid national and artistic identities over the course of his instructional relationships with his American students, and the shifting personal and professional goals harbored by each party. While scholars have acknowledged the relation of West's pedagogical practice to his identity as an artist, this study presents an organic account of the relationships between teacher and students as an embodiment of West's ongoing and unprecedented attempts at fame, fortune, and legacy. This legacy was central to Benjamin West's identity as an artist. His professional career was dedicated to the self-aggrandizement of his identities as an (exotic) American, a prolific painter of high-minded scenes of history and religion, and the head of a workshop teeming with artists who shared his heritage, though not always his aesthetic inclinations. Over his career he cultivated a reputation as a welcoming instructor, always willing to give advice or lessons to any artist who approached him. This was not solely an act of altruism. Instead, it was the cornerstone of his construction of a proverbial House of West, a workshop-family whose members and their works would reflect back on the genius of the master, just as strongly as his own oeuvre. Through the examination of four case studies of his instruction of American students – that of Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, and a circle of students led by Washington Allston – this study integrates Benjamin West's teaching practice with his career aspirations, positioning his pedagogy within the greater framework of his self-presentation. In doing so, it presents a history painter engrossed in the promulgation of his name throughout history, through his own artistic output and those of his children and students, as the progenitor of American artists working in the European tradition.