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Benjamin West, 1738–1820

The Cave of Despair

Former Title(s):

The Cave of Despair from Spencer Windsor Castle

The cave of Despair, from Spencer's Fairy Queen [1772, Royal Academy of Arts, London, exhibition catalogue]

Materials & Techniques:
Oil on canvas
24 x 30 inches (61 x 76.2 cm)

Signed and dated in black paint, right center: "B. West | Painted 1772"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
allegory | cave | costume | dagger | death | donkey | fire | knight (landholder) | literary theme | literature | men | personification | poem | religious and mythological subject | rope | skulls (skeleton components) | suicide | swords | virgin | women
Associated People:
Not on view
IIIF Manifest:

As soon as Benjamin West arrived in London in 1763, he determined to define himself as a history painter. He proved remarkably successful and quickly forged a career as the leading exponent of the genre in England. The subject of this small history painting is derived from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen (1590–96) and shows St. George, the “Redcrosse Knight of Holiness,” discovering Despair in his cave. Despair tempts all who encounter him to commit suicide. Bewitched, St. George raises his dagger to stab himself, only to be saved by the Virgin Una, the personification of True Religion. This is almost certainly the picture West exhibited with the Royal Academy in 1773.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2016

Benjamin West : Fidelia and Speranza (Timken Museum of Art, 2004-11-05 - 2005-02-27) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Benjamin West and his American Students (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1981-01-30 - 1981-04-19) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Benjamin West and his American Students (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian, 1980-10-06 - 1981-01-05) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Painters and Engraving - The Reproductive Print from Hogarth to Wilkie (Yale Center for British Art, 1980-03-26 - 1980-06-22) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

A Correct Catalogue of the Works of Benjamin West, Esq., The Port-folio, v. 6, 1811, p. 542, C19: The Nineteenth Century Index [ORBIS]

A Correct Catalogue of the Works of Mr. West, Public Characters of 1805, p. 567, V2161 (YCBA) [YCBA]

David Alexander, Painters and Engraving: The Reproductive Print from Hogarth to Wilkie, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1980, p. 31, no. 54, NE631.2 .A43 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Benjamin West, President of the Royal Academy: the Artist, La Belle Assemblee, p. 18 (supplement), V2175 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Benjamin West: List of Paintings with Dates Contained in the Article, European Magazine and London Review, September 1794, p. 1, V2180 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Biographical Sketch of Benjamin West, Esq. : President of the Royal Academy, The Port-folio, v. 5, Philadelphia, PA, November 23, 1805, p. 2, American Periodicals [ORBIS]

Biographical Sketch of Benjamin West, Esq. : President of the Royal Academy, The Port-folio, v. 5, Philadelphia, PA, November 23, 1805, p. 2, C19: The Nineteenth Century Index [ORBIS]

Biographical Sketch of Benjamin West, Esq. President of the Royal Academy, Universal Magazine, v. 3, 1805, p. 531, British Periodicals [ORBIS]

Maurice E. Bloch, A Benjamin West Portfolio : Drawings and Studies, Harbor Press, New York, 1968, fig. 17, V2567 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Laurel Bradley, Eighteenth-Century Paintings and Illustrations of Spenser's Faerie Queene: A Study in Taste, pp. 38, 41, 51, V0279 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Derrick R. Cartwright, Benjamin West: Allegory and Allegiance, vol. 7, Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, CA, USA, 2004, pp. 16-20, 24, 41, cat. 7, V1398 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Cave of Despair, Connoisseur, v. 172, London, October 1969, p. lxvii, N1 C75 Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

Malcolm Cormack, Concise Catalogue of Paintings in the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1985, pp. 240-1, N590.2 A83 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Dorinda Evans, Benjamin West and His American Students, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C., 1980, p. 48, fig. 27, ND207 .E94 Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

Norman K. Farmer, 'A Moniment Forever More' : 'The Faerie Queene' and British Art, 1770-1950, Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol. 52, Princeton, NJ, Autumn 1990, pp. 29, 31, 38, 75, 77, fig. 5, JSTOR [ORBIS]

Fine Arts, The Literary Chronicle, v. 26, June 28,1823, p. 414, British Periodicals [ORBIS]

John Gage, Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK, 1980, p. 130, , , NJ18 .T85 A2 1980 (YCBA) [YCBA]

John Gage, Turner's Academic Friendships: C. L. Eastlake, Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, v. 110, London, December 1968, pp. 678, 681, pl. 49, N1 .B87 Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

John Galt, Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West, Esq./ composed from materials furnished by himself, , T. Caddell and W. Davies, London, 1820, Part II, p. 231, ND237 .W45 G4 (YCBA) YCBA Rare Books [YCBA]

John Galt, The Life of Benjamin West (1816-1820), Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, Gainesville, FL, 1960, p. 281, NJ18 W.52 G.35 1960A (YCBA) [YCBA]

Catherine M. Gordon, British paintings Hogarth to Turner, Frederick Warne, London, 1981, p. 70, ND466 G67 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Debra Mancoff, The Arthurian Revival in Victorian Art, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York & London, 1990, pp. 21-2, fig. 3, N6767 .M32 1990 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Jerry Don Meyer, The Religious Paintings of Benjamin West: A Study in Late Eighteenth-Century and Early Nineteenth-Century Moral Sentiment [PhD Dissertation, New York University], New York, 1973, pp. viii, 91, 95, 97, 325, no. 25, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global [ORBIS]

Nancy L. Pressly, Revealed religion : Benjamin West's commissions for Windsor Castle and Fonthill Abbey, San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio, 1983, p. 13, NJ18 .W52 P74 (YCBA) [YCBA]

William L. Pressly, The Artist as Original Genius: Shakespeare's 'Fine Frenzy' in Late-Eighteenth-Century British Art, University of Delaware Press, Newark, NJ, pp. 96-7, fig. 54, ND1442 .G7 P74 2007 Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

Princeton University Art Museum, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene: An Exhibition on the Occasion of the Four-Hundredth Anniversary of its Publication, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 30-1, PR2358 .P75 1990 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Renate Prochno, Nationalism in British Eighteenth-Century Painting: Sir Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West, Studies in the History of Art, v. 29, pp. 28, 38, 40-42, pl. 12, V0148 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Paul Richard, Artist and Model: Benjamin West at the National Portrait Gallery, The Washington Post, Times Herald, October 16, 1980, p. F10, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post [ORBIS]

George Henry Robins, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Unequalled Collection of Historical Pictures, and Other Admired Compositions, the Works of the Revered and Highly-Gifted Painter, the Late Benjamin West, Esq., President of the Royal Academy, , Beaufort House, London, 1829, p. 23, lot 77, V2181 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Robins sale catalogue: Catalogue of a Few Finished Original Pictures, Particularly the First Installation of the Order of the Garter: one of the Most Elaborate Works of the Late Benjamin West, Esq. P.R.A. : 20 and 22 June 1829, Robins, Whiting, London, UK, June 20-22, 1829, p. 6, lot 62, , V2186 [ORBIS]

Robert Rosenblum, Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1967, p. 12, N6410 .R66 1969 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Royal Academy of Arts, Catalogues of the Royal Academy, vol. 1:1, 1773, p. 27, no. 309, , N5054 A53 1-13 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Allen Staley, Copley and West in England 1775-1815, The Burlington Press, London, UK, 2021, p. 116, NJ18 .C75 S73 2021 + Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

Mei-Ying Sung, Technical and material studies of William Blake's engraved illustrations of the Book of Job (1826) [PhD dissertation, Nottingham Trent University, 2005], Nottingham, UK, 2005, pp. 213-4, 217-9, 221, 224, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global [ORBIS]

Helmut von Erffa, Benjamin West at the Height of His Career, American Art Journal, vol. 1, Spring 1969, p. 19, JSTOR [ORBIS]

Helmut von Erffa, The Paintings of Benjamin West, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1986, pp. 76, 78-79, 82, 278-279, no. 220, NJ18 W52 A12 +E73 Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

Raphael Lamar West, Letter from the Sons of Benjamin West, Deceased, Late President of the Royal Academy of London, Offering to Sell to the Government of the United States Sundry Paintings of that Artist, Washington D.C., 1826, p. 6, lot 122, , V2178 (YCBA) [YCBA]

West's Gallery, A Catalogue of Pictures Painted by the late Benjamin West, Esq.: Including a Description of the Great Pictures, Christ Rejected, and Death on the Pale Horse: Now Exhibitiing at No. 14 Newman Street, C. H. Reynell, Lonfon, 1822, p. 31, no. 138, , V2176 (YCBA) [YCBA]

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