Walking up the grand staircase of the PAFA, you slowly become aware of the two gigantic paintings on either side on the second floor, both by Benjamin West, one of the first major painters in American art. Born October 10, 1738 among a Quaker community in Springfield, Pennsylvania, West painted epic scenes from the Bible and history, many of which are still in Philadelphia over 200 years later. Perhaps my favorite West painting at the PAFA, William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (above, from 1771) shows the moment at which Pennsylvania and Philadelphia were born. West claimed that he first learned how to mix colors and paint from the Native Americans who lived nearby, which may have helped him in painting them in a sympathetic light in this painting—more noble savage than savage period. West served as a militia captain during the Indian wars of the 1750s, yet still didn’t adopt the common prejudice against Native Americans. This humanity helped catapult West into a grand career at a portraitist and, later, history painter.
West found success painting portraits of prominent Philadelphians, including his friend Benjamin Franklin, between 1746 and 1759. In 1759, wealthy patrons sponsored his trip to Italy to study the works of the masters such as Titian and Raphael. (Londoners would later call West “the American Raphael.” ) He moved to England in 1763 and soon became painter to King George III. West truly put himself on the art map with The Death of General Wolfe (above, from 1770), a stunning historical portrait of the dying hero cast in a classical light yet portrayed without classical dress—an innovation that fast forwarded epic history painting to the recent past. West paints in a bombastic style, with almost garish color. His figures strike theatrical poses that hammer home the message, with Wolfe himself posed like a Renaissance Christ freshly lowered from the cross. In The Death of General Wolfe, a Native American crouches in the middle, musing upon the death of Wolfe with his chin resting on his fist, as pensive as Rodin’s Thinker itself in the face of such heroic grandeur. As the second president of the Royal Academy of Art, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, West’s own thoughts on art influenced generations of artists on both sides of the Atlantic.
West’s giant paintings intimidate you with their size and scope. The PAFA's Death on a Pale Horse (above, 1817) hovers over you with the force of revelation, threatening to trample you in its path. Seeing this at the PAFA, you wish you could keep moving further and further back, but the railing of the staircase traps you. At Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, you can see West’s Christ Healing the Sick with plenty of room to move back, which seems to diminish the power of the painting. West’s works almost refuse to allow you to take them all in at once, forcing you to move about them as if you yourself were there in the scene. When an earlier version of the PAFA building burned down in the nineteenth century, firefighters had to cut West’s painting from the frame and roll it up to save it from the flames. The crowd assembled reportedly cheered at the sight of the saved behemoth. West’s paintings may have lost some favor with critics, but his influence on later American artists such as Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, and John Singleton Copley will always save a place for him in the history of American art.