One of the most prominent artists of his era, Benjamin West helped to shape both the neoclassical and the romantic styles in England. Because of his help to a generation of young American artists, he was considered during the nineteenth century to have been the father of American painting.
He showed artistic ability at a very early age. He received some instruction from the English portrait painter William Williams (1721-1791) and by the time he was eighteen years old had established himself as a professional portraitist in Philadelphia. The support of patrons enabled him in 1760 to study in Italy, where he absorbed the spirit and emerging style of the neoclassical movement. In 1763 he went to England, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. West met with great success with the neoclassical style he introduced to England and further developed there. In 1772 he was appointed historical painter to King George III. During the 1780s West was an important figure influencing the emergence of the romantic style in England. A charter member of the Royal Academy, he was elected its second president in 1792, remaining in that position, with a brief interruption, until his death in 1820. Already a prominent figure in London in the 1760s, West continued to be celebrated and influential throughout his life. His example attracted a generation of American artists to study with him.
John Galt, The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West, Esq. (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1820), with catalogue § Grose Evans, Benjamin West and the Taste of His Times (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1959), with bibliography § John Dillenberger, Benjamin West: The Context of His Life’s Work with Particular Attention to Paintings with Religious Subject Matter (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1977), with correlated version of early nineteenth-century lists of West’s paintings, exhibitions, sales, checklist of religious paintings, bibliography § Robert C. Alberts, Benjamin West: A Biography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), with bibliography § Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986), with catalogue raisonné.