Benjamin West (1738-1820) was not only the first important artist to come out of North America — born in Swarthmore, raised in Newtown Square — he was also one of the most important artists in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Having come out of what was at the time more or less nowhere, he became a success in London when he was still in his 20s. His breakthrough work, The Death of General Wolfe (1770) caused a sensation because it depicted a recent event, something that wasn't done at the time. King George III became his patron, and he was a founder and the longest-serving head of the Royal Academy.

He never came back to the colonies he left or the United States they became, yet he produced two of the signature images of early America: Penn's Treaty with the Indians (1771-72) at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky (c. 1816) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

He also became the teacher of three generations of American artists, including Charles Willson Peale and his son Rembrandt Peale, Gilbert Stuart (whose George Washington is on the dollar bill), Thomas Sully, and many others.

He seems all in all to be quite a worthy character for study. So why did my heart sink just a bit when I learned of PAFA's show "First Academies: Benjamin West and the Founding of the Royal Academy of the Arts and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts," on view through June 3?

I guess it's because I have always considered his work boring, and I had little expectation that this show would change my mind. Besides, though the show does contain some loans, primarily of prints and drawings, I knew  it  would consist largely of works that are in PAFA's collection, most of which are almost always on display.

Two academies, one West

The Royal Academy, which is celebrating the 250th anniversary of its founding, invited many other institutions in Britain to join in the celebration, according to PAFA president and CEO David R. Brigham, who curated the show. PAFA is the only U.S. institution participating.

West is the clearest link between the two institutions. He was PAFA's first honorary academician, a role he seems to have taken seriously. The exhibition includes long and very specific letters of advice to the Philadelphians who founded PAFA, urging them, for example, to acquire plaster casts of ancient sculptures to help them teach their students to draw, a practice PAFA still follows.

And despite his close association with George III, the king against whom Americans revolted, he also encouraged their national aspirations. He said Americans should make their own art and not simply that of other countries, and wrote, "It is my hope that Philadelphia … may be looked up to as the Athens of the western world in all that can give polish to the human mind."

Although West had little formal education, he obviously worked at his artistic technique and tried to systematize it for others.

“Elizabeth  Peel” (ca. 1757) by Benjamin West.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
“Elizabeth  Peel” (ca. 1757) by Benjamin West.

His early portrait Elizabeth Peel (ca. 1757), done in Pennsylvania when he was still in his teens, appears primitive and awkward. Most of his attention seemed to be lavished on her blue silk dress, which reflects his study with an English painter who had settled here. (He first learned to mix pigments, he later wrote, from members of local Native American tribes.)

Yet after a grand tour of Europe underwritten by Philadelphia-area patrons, and some time in London, he emerged as an important and highly accomplished artist.

West's aspiration was as a history painter. At the time he was working, this was considered the highest form. His paintings were large, complex, often violent, and intended to convey a message that might be religious, moral, or patriotic — sometimes all three.

Like other painters of his time, West sometimes rented a hall and charged the public admission to see his works. They were a little bit like today's movie blockbusters, filled with crowds to please crowds.

Such paintings tend to leave contemporary audiences cold, especially when they are unfamiliar with the story being told. His more intimate works, such as his chalk-and-gouache Portrait of Prince Octavius (1783) were minor in their time but are charming today. Indeed, the least seen and often most revealing items in the show are the drawings, preliminary sketches, and watercolors, in which we see the hand of an individual, not the Historical Painter to the King.

“Self-Portrait” (1806) by Benjamin West.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
“Self-Portrait” (1806) by Benjamin West.

The wittiest work in the show is probably an 1806 self-portrait that shows him painting a portrait of his wife, Elizabeth. The painting, which he gave to his friend the steamboat inventor and sometime painter Robert Fulton, seems a playful meditation on making a work that is lifelike. Mrs. West, gazing from her canvas, looks just as "real" as the man who is bringing her into being. That's not surprising, because he is equally unreal. It's all just paint, as a later generation would say.

Part of the show deals with West's students, such as Stuart and the Peales, who tried consciously to create an American identity in their paintings. But their work tends to be more focused on individuals, especially George Washington, than on epic depictions of historic events.

The big picture

West, though, was mostly about the big picture — massive canvases teeming with people, rife with action and emotion. One of the biggest is Death on the Pale Horse (1817), more than 25 feet wide and nearly 15 feet high. It shows a scene from the New Testament Book of Revelation. Death is a lightning-spewing zombie on a white horse, spreading terror. Good people cower. Lions roar. Jesus rides off. Birds fall backward from the sky.

PAFA mortgaged its building to buy the painting in 1836, and it has been on view ever since. West is said to have considered it his masterpiece. I have always seen it as empty, bombastic, and hardly worth a look.

The exhibition presents this work as an example of West alluding to Greek and Roman inspirations. I saw it, this time, as something far closer to our own time and place. It is energetic and weird and barely coherent, like something from the Marvel universe. It is besotted with apocalypse, a wide-screen search for a cosmic conclusion. This wild West, who became so perfect an Englishman, might really have been the first American artist after all.

ON EXHIBIT

First Academies: Benjamin West and the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

  • Trough June 3 at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 N.  Broad St. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Sat. and Sun. Admission: $15, adults; $12, seniors and students with ID; $8, youth ages 13-18 (free under age 13). Information: 215-972-7600 or pafa.org