WEST, Benjamin
(b. 1738, Springfield, d. 1820, London)

The Treaty of Penn with the Indians

Oil on canvas, 190 x 274 cm
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia

The genre in which English painters were least happy in the second half of the 18th century was history painting; the efforts of Reynolds in this direction are strangely petrified for so living a painter. Yet it was through history painting that Neo-Classicism invaded the art in England. A Scot, Gavin Hamilton (1738-1820) and an American, Benjamin West, who enjoyed a prodigious success, were in advance of the French painter Jacques-Louis David in the conception of a painting as a scene from Classical history, based upon thorough archeological research.

West was most successful when least pretentious; his illustrations of English historical events are simply illustrations, simply composed, uneffectedly direct. Neo-classicism had trained West to give value to the facts of the scene depicted, removing anything merely decorative or liable to spoil the sense of witnessing an actual event.