When the American colonists began dumping tea in the Boston Harbor in 1773, one can only imagine Benjamin West watched the situation with interest and not a little apprehension. Two years later, the American Revolution broke out in full force and West officially found himself in an awkward position.
If anyone doubted the America's reputation as one of the leading painters in London, they had to look no further than his most prestigious patron — King George III.
West moved to London at the age of 24 and had lived there for a decade by the time the revolutionary colonists decided to rise up. But just because he was living in London — and, in fact, would never return to America — didn’t mean his sympathies rested with the loyalists.
West maintained a lively correspondence with his dear friends back home, including Benjamin Franklin, who was the godfather to his second son; his large family (he was the youngest of 10) remained in the American colonies; and he was passionate about helping other up-and-coming American artists cultivate their craft in England.
After all, there was more opportunity for education, inspiration, and renown in the old and established mother-country than in a nascent newcomer like the American colonies.
But that didn’t make his position as a proud American whose career was being backed by the monarchy in England any easier. So West did what he did best. He picked up his paintbrush.
Only one painting came out of the series West had originally planned on the events involved in the American Revolution. It was a historical portrait commemorating the end of the aggression, West’s “Signing of the Preliminary Treaty of Peace.”
But while the Treaty of Paris may have ended the war, West’s portrait was never finished, fading to blank as it moves to the right side of the canvas.
While five Americans proudly pose around the table holding the momentous document, the British are notably absent. It was humiliating enough that the grand empire was forced to concede defeat to the disrespectful upstarts, but the British representatives would be damned if they were also going to be forced to pose for a commemorative portrait immortalizing their failure.
West was born in October, 1738 in the small town of Springfield, PA, just a few miles away from Philadelphia. He came from a big family helmed by a father who had originally emigrated from England, as so many did in those days.
While the area had already become a well-established Quaker stronghold, West’s relationship to the religion appears unclear, if not complicated.
The subtitle of a June 11, 1898 article on a posthumous auction of his work describes him as “the little Quaker boy who became a rich and famous man.” But a 1908 book on the painter takes a firmer stance. On the title page, a subtitle spells out the situation plainly: “Not a Quaker.”
Either way, it was clear from an early age that the young boy had talent, too much talent for the provincial limitations of his small town.
As a young man, he moved to Philadelphia for better training, where he met some of the influential society folk of the colony. As was common in those days, several of them saw his talent and realized that, in order to fully embrace it, he would need to travel to the continent to study the centuries of great works that could be found there.
With sponsorship from a few prominent citizens of Philadelphia, including former mayor William Allen, who didn’t think that “such a Genius should be cramped for want of a little Cash,” West sailed for Italy on a flour ship in 1760 at the age of 21. (James Hamilton, the son of Alexander Hamilton, would eventually become another influential patron of the artist.)
West stayed in Italy for three years, soaking up everything he could from the Old Masters.
After West’s Italian romp came to an end, he made a stop in London on his way back to America. He began to find success in the great capital of England, and he decided not to mess with a good thing. His long layover would become permanent and West would never leave England.
While his American friends would continue to support him and send copious letters back and forth across the sea, they clearly felt the loss of their compatriot.
In a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to his wife in 1770 discussing a different American artist who was studying abroad, Franklin writes, “I hope he will meet with due Encouragement in his own Country, and that we shall not lose him as we have lost Mr. West.”
One of the artist’s early breakout successes was a painting titled “The Death of General Wolfe.” He was a somewhat traditional historical and portrait painter, but his ideas about how these genres could come to life were revolutionary.
In this painting completed in 1770, West maintains a classical composition, but he paints the figures in the piece in contemporary clothing, which was quite scandalous at the time.
“To contemporary eyes, West looks like anything but a modern artist,” Lloyd Grossman writes in Benjamin West and the Struggle to Be Modern. “Yet Wolfe was a disruptive, even revolutionary picture that, I believe, helped to change the course of art.”
Another surprising fan of this piece was the good ol’ monarch. When rumor got to King George that a young, no-name artist from the American colonies was working on a piece that would honor a contemporary hero in such an improper manner, he thought about ordering an official cease and desist. How could this project be allowed to go on?
But despite the potential blowback that West was no doubt aware of, the artist carried on. When the finished painting was finally revealed, it won wide acclaim and George quickly and dramatically changed his tune. Not only did he order a replica of the piece, the monarch appointed West to the position of historical painter to the king in 1772.
By all accounts, West was an extremely likable figure. On top of being incredibly talented, he became involved in the art community of London, was eager to help young students — especially those from America — in any way he could, and he was good looking and affable. So, when war broke out, it doesn’t seem he lost any esteem or trust from his English hosts, including the king.
During those long years of conflict, West waited out the war in England, although with concern for his loved ones back home. “I am anxiety [sic] to know how you have been during the great commosions [sic] of war in our native land, and what is become of all my relations,” West wrote to his brother on July 2, 1780.
When the American Revolution finally began to wind down, he decided to try to process the conflict by painting its major events.
On August 4, 1783, he wrote to one of his students of his “intention of composing a set of pictures containing the great events which have affected the revolution of America; for the better enabling me to do this, I desired you to send what ever you thought would give me the most exact knowledge of the costume of the American armys [sic], portraits in small, either painting or drawing, of the conspicuous characters necessary to be introduced into such work.”
His student complied with his wishes, but, to tell the story of the war, West decided to start at the end. For that, he would paint his subjects from real life. He wanted to paint a piece to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Paris that had officially ended the conflict.
In the painting, five Americans, all identifiable but in various states of completion, are shown arrayed around a desk strewn with papers. John Adams, John Jay, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin all stopped in London to pose for West. Benjamin Franklin is also pictured, but he did not sit for his dear friend. Instead, West painted him probably with the aid of an existing portrait.
But as the painting moves from left to right, more white space and sketch marks begin to appear. On the right hand side of the piece, the British representatives Richard Oswald and Caleb Whitefoord were supposed to be represented. But these two men are missing.
Most contend that they are absent because they refused to sit for the painter. It was one indignity too far in a whole host of indignities that had beset the grand nation over the previous few years.
But one of these characters may have had additional concerns of a more vain nature. In his book Empires of the Imagination, Holger Hoock speculates that, among the other reasons the British pair failed to sit for the artist, “Did Oswald, of whom no other portrait existed, refuse to sit because he was considered decidedly ugly?”
Whatever the cause, West hit this roadblock and his American Revolution series came to an abrupt halt.
"As I very strongly expressed my regret that this picture should be left unfinished, Mr. West said he thought he could finish it . . . I understood his intention to be to make a present of it to Congress,” John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary.
But regardless of his intentions, he never completed the “Signing of the Preliminary Treaty of Peace,” and the rest of the series remained in the realm of grand plans never realized. West might have decided “that the topic was after all too sensitive for the king’s history painter to touch,” Hoock writes.
The painting remained unfinished, a visual representation of the unbreachable divide that had developed between the Empire and its former colony. But if the painting showed the division, West’s own career was a manifestation of the ties that would slowly grow back and bind the two nations together.
The artist became a celebrated American artist, a proponent of his native land and the people who came from it. But he was also celebrated by his adopted English brethren. In 1782, West was named the president of the premiere artistic establishment in England — the Royal Academy. The American would hold the post until his death in 1820.
As an 1898 article on West in Montana’s Neihart Herald describes, he had a “remarkable” as an artist who “although American born, by the incomprehensible revolutions of fortune’s wheel attained to the post of the highest official distinction in English art — the presidency of the Royal Academy; who was born in a humble farm house not fifteen miles from Philadelphia, yet whose earthly remains were deposited with reverential pomp in a cathedral tomb — in St. Paul’s — beside Sir Joshua Reynold and Sir Christopher Wren.”