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Benjamin West, 1738–1820, American, active in Britain (from 1763)

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]

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 - 1981-04-19) [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]

Malcolm Cormack, A Concise Catalogue of Paintings in the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1985, pp. 240-241, N590.2 A83 (YCBA) [YCBA]

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

Howard Oakley, Benjamin West and Modern History 2, , The Eclectic Light Company, February 10, 2020, Online, https://eclecticlight.co/2020/02/10/benjamin-west-and-modern-history-2/ [Website]

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

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