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

The Artist and His Family

Former Title(s):

The Artist's Family

The West Family

A Small Picture of a Family [1777, Royal Academy of Arts, London, exhibition catalogue]

Date:
ca. 1772
Medium:
Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Support (PTG): 20 1/2 x 26 1/4 inches (52.1 x 66.7 cm)
Inscription(s)/Marks/Lettering:

Signed and dated, lower left: "B. West, 1770/72[?]" [mostly illegible]

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
B1981.25.674
Classification:
Paintings
Collection:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
armchairs | artist | baby | boy | breeches | brother | brown coat | buckles | children | collar | conversation piece | curtains | family | father | group portrait | hat | headpiece | infant | men | mother | painter | palette | portrait | Quakers | ruffle | self-portrait | son | woman
Associated People:
West, Benjamin (1738–1820), American history painter active in Britain
Access:
On view in the galleries
Link:
https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/catalog/tms:5040
Export:
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In 1760, Benjamin West left Springfield in the Pennsylvania Colony for Italy, determined to improve his artistic education through exposure to the art of antiquity and the Italian Renaissance. Three years later he settled in London, where he quickly established himself as the leading history painter and a favorite of King George III. Despite its modest size, this painting is a profound meditation on West’s own cosmopolitan identity. Standing to the right, West is dressed in a luxurious lilac mantle, palette in hand. Betsy, his American-born wife, sits in the window with their two sons; the newborn was a godson to Benjamin Franklin. The artist’s Quaker father, John, sits in profile next to the artist’s half brother, Thomas. They sit together quietly, soberly dressed Quakers, while Benjamin West stands behind, the famous head of an affluent and fashionable family having progressed from colonial innkeeper’s son to confidant of the king.
Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2016



The occasion for this family group portrait was the birth in August 1772 of the Benjamin West’s second son. Grouped around the newborn baby and his mother Betsy West are (from left to right) the elder son Raphael Lamar, aged six; the artist’s half-brother Thomas West and his octogenarian father John West, both Quakers, and the successful, well-dressed artist himself. John West had recently returned to Britain after living for nearly fifty years in America, meeting Thomas—a long-lost son from his first marriage—for the first time. The portrait touches gently upon some of the issues West must have pondered as an expatriate American artist in Britain: the value of sophistication as against simplicity, and success within the establishment as against devout non-conformism. It also recalls the traditional subject of the Ages of Man. (By contrast with London manners, Quakers only removed their hats indoors to pray.)
Gallery label for Paul Mellon's Legacy: A Passion for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2007-04-18 - 2007-07-29)



The occasion for this family group portrait was the birth in August 1772 of Benjamin West's second son. Grouped around the newborn baby and his mother, Betsy West, are (from left to right) the elder son, Raphael Lamar, age six; the artist's half-brother, Thomas West, and his octogenarian father, John West, both Quakers; and the successful, well-dressed artist himself. John West had recently returned to Britain after living for nearly fifty years in America, meeting Thomas-a long-lost son from his first marriage-for the first time. The portrait touches gently upon some of the issues West must have pondered as an expatriate American artist in Britain: the value of sophistication as against simplicity, success within the establishment as against devout non-conformism. (By contrast with London manners, Quakers only removed their hats indoors to pray.) It also recalls the traditional subject of the Ages of Man.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2005
Despite its small size—it measures less than twenty-seven inches across—Benjamin West’s “The Artist and His Family” is a forceful statement of personal and professional ambition. The “neat little scene of domestic happiness,” as it was called by the “Morning Chronicle” (25 April 1777) was probably painted with the express purpose of serving as a modello for an engraving published by Boydell in 1779. Dedicated to Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, the print—as well as the lofty references to religious art in “The Artist and His Family”—indicates the scope of West’s ambitions to be known internationally as a history and portrait painter through the calling card of this seemingly modest family picture. The painting marks two generative events: the birth of West’s second child and the reunion of the American and British members of the West family. After Benjamin West settled in London, his English-born father, John, returned from America for the first time in nearly fifty years. There, John met his long-lost son Thomas, shown as a man of fifty-six seated next to his white-haired father. This earlier reunion between John and Thomas—both practicing Quakers, as indicated by their costume—is echoed in the 1772 gathering, in which grandfather and uncle call to see the newest member of the West family. Jules Prown has referred to “The Artist and His Family” as “a nativity in Hammersmith,” denoting the sacred aura that infuses this domestic scene, probably painted at the artist’s villa near the Thames in Hammersmith (Prown, 2002, p. 117). Betsy West, cradling her child in her lap, is a secular Madonna, visited by two magi in the forms of John and Thomas West. The artist, dressed in a lavender gown and holding his palette and maulstick as markers of his profession, echoes the marginalized physical placement of Joseph in traditional Nativity scenes. Cassandra Albinson John Baskett, Paul Mellon's Legacy: a Passion for British art: Masterpieces from the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, cat. no. 43, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA)



The occasion for this family portrait was the birth of the artist's second son, also named Benjamin, in August 1772. Around the child and his mother, Betsy West, are grouped the chief members of the West family in England: the elder son, Raphael Lamar, aged six; the artist's half-brother Thomas West; his octagenarian father John West; and the artist himself on the far right, holding the painter's traditional attributes of palette and maulstick. The family history that brought them together at this time and place is a complicated and remarkable one.

John West was the son of English Quaker parents who emigrated with William Penn to Pennsylvania, leaving him in England to be raised by his mother's family, also Quakers, who lived in Warborough, between Oxford and Reading. At the age of twenty-six he too emigrated to Pennsylvania. His wife stayed behind because she was pregnant and shortly after his departure died giving birth to a son, Thomas. John remarried in Pennsylvania and with his second wife had ten further children, the tenth of whom was Benjamin, the artist. They lived largely in Chester County, where John kept taverns.

The young Benjamin West left America in 1760, spent three years in Rome, and decided to pursue his artistic career in London. Soon he arranged for his American fiancée, then Betsy Shewell, to come over from Philadelphia to join him; they were married in an Anglican ceremony at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. John West accompanied Betsy on the journey, returning to England for the first time in nearly fifty years. By now a widower for the second time, John was to stay in England for good, settling in his childhood home of Warborough. Thomas West, his long-lost son from his first marriage, lived in nearby Reading, where he made his living as a watchmaker; like John himself, he had been raised-and remained-a Quaker. Perhaps Benjamin West felt some pride in being the cause of their finally coming together, and certainly underlines their kinship and companionship in the portrait; not only in their Quaker dress but also in their postures and looks, they appear cast from the same severe mold. About the same time he also painted them together as companions of William Penn in his painting of Penn's Treaty with the Indians (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts).1

Next to his father and half-brother, West himself looks the very image of worldly sophistication, expensively dressed and wigged, his pose hinting at grace and accomplishment. Though still in his early thirties hewas already at the height of his success; his painting of The Death of General Wolfe (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) had won acclaim at the Royal Academy in 1771, and in 1772-the year of his second son's birth-he secured the lucrative royal appointment of Historical Painter to the King. He had a studio in Panton Square in the center of town and a villa near the Thames in Hammersmith-the latter may well have provided the setting for the portrait. On the left West's wife and children bear out the same idea of easy refinement. Like the man of the world he has become, the family of his own creation is clearly quite different from the family that created him: the stolid, blocky figures of the father and half-brother, with their straight-ahead staring expressions, suggest simple religious faith and simple lives; those of the artist, his wife, and children gently lean and incline, achieving harmony through balance and interplay rather than individual rectitude.

Though first and foremost a family portrait, The Artist and his Family opens out to some of the large issues West must have pondered as an American artist in England: the value of sophistication as against simplicity, success within the establishment as against devout nonconformism. It also recalls the traditional subject of the Ages of Man, even perhaps that of the Adoration of Christ. The work was published as an engraving in 1779 and went on to become one of West's best known and most admired compositions.

1 For further biographical details, and information on the West family's religious background, see Prown 1986, 269-72. Malcolm Warner

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, pp. 10, 11, 60-1, no. 18, fig. 10, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA)

Robert C. Alberts, Benjamin West : A Biography, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1978, p. 397, p. 20 in unnumered plate section between pp. 78 and 79, NJ18 W52 A6 (YCBA)

John Baskett, Paul Mellon's Legacy: a Passion for British Art: Masterpieces from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, p. 261, no. 43, pl. 43, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

Rose Clare, Children's clothes since 1750, B.T. Batsford, London, 1989, p. 24, fig. 12, GT1730 R67 1989 (YCBA)

Tom Coates, Creating a self-portrait, Mitchell Beazley, London, 1989, p. 118, N7618 C62 1989 (YCBA)

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)

Ellen G. D'Oench, The Conversation Piece: Arthur Devis & his contemporaries, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1980, pp. 4, 74, cat. no. 60, fig. 20, NJ18 D5151 D64 OVERSIZE

John Dillenberger, Benjamin West : The Context of his Life's Work, with Particular Attention to Paintings with Religious Subject Matter, Including a Correlated Version of Early Nineteenth-Century Lists of West's Paintings, Exhibitions, and Sales Records of his Works..., , Trinity University Press, San Antonio, 1977, pp. 5-6, NJ18 W52 +D55 Oversize (YCBA)

Exhibition Catalogue. 1777. 9th, Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, no. 9, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1777, p. 27, no. 367, N5054 A53 v. 1:1 (YCBA)

Dr. Kenneth Garlick, The Bicentennial Exhibition at the Royal Academy, Apollo, v. 89, no. 84, February 1969, p. 92, fig. 5, A1 A54 + (YCBA)

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

Loyd Grossman, Benjamin West and the struggle to be modern, Merrell, London: New York, 2015, pp. 42, 42-47, 52-53, fig. 21, NJ18.W52 G76 2015 (YCBA)

Charles Robert Leslie, Hand-book for young painters, London, 1870, pp. 294-5, ND1135 L47 1870 (YCBA)

Margaretta M. Lovell, Art in a season of revolution, painters, artisans, and patrons in early America , University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, Pa., 2005, pp. 141..., pl. VII, N6515 L68 2005 (YCBA)

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, pp. 10, 11, 60-1, no. 18, fig. 10, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA)

R. Melville, Two centuries of summer shows: Exhibition at the Burlington House, Architectural Review, vol. 145, March 1969, p. 195, NA1 A737 OVERSIZE (HAAS)

Lillian B. Miller, The Peale family, creation of a legacy 1770-1870 , Abbeville Press, New York, 1996, p. 45, fig. 16, NJ18 P3 P43 FKZ 0875 1996 OVERSIZE (HAAS)

Charles Franklin Montgomery, American art, 1750-1800, towards independence , Yale University Art Gallery, Boston, MA, 1976, N6507 A54 1976 + (Bass)

National Gallery of Art, Painting in Georgian England from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1970, p. 16, no. 44, ND488 P25 (YCBA)

Alexander Nemerow, The Ashes of Germanicus and the Skin of Painting, Sublimation and Money in Benjamin West's Agrippina , The Yale Journal of Criticism, vol. 11, no. 1, Spring, 1998, p. 13, fig. 2, PN80 Y35 (SML) Also available Online (Orbis)

Painting in England 1700-1850 from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, The Royal Academy of Arts Winter Exhibition 1964-65., , Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK, 1964, p. 40 (v.1), no. 146, pl. 67, ND466 R68 1964/65 (YCBA) Also available on Microfiche: Fiche B214 (YCBA)

Painting in England 1700-1850, collection of Mr. & Mrs. Paul Mellon. , Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, 1963, pp. 135 (v. 1), no. 256, ND466 V57 v.1-2 (YCBA)

Paul Mellon's Legacy, a passion for British art. [large print labels] , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 3, N5220 M552 +P381 2007, Mellon Shelf (YCBA)

Jules D. Prown, Art as Evidence : Writings on Art and Material Culture, , Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2001, pp. 7, 117-32, pl. 4, fig. 7.1, N6507 P745 2001 (YCBA)

Susan Rather, The American school : artists and status in the late-colonial and early national era, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2016, pp. 120-21, fig. 100, N6507 .R38 2016 (YCBA)

Kate Retford, The art of domestic life, family portraiture in eighteenth-century England , Yale University Press, New Haven, London, 2006, pp. 121, 123, 124-26, fig. 89, ND1313.4 .R48 2006 (YCBA)

Royal Academy of Arts Bicentenary exhibition, 1768-1968, catalogue [of an exhibition held on] 14 December 1968-2 March 1969. , Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1968, p. 36, N6764 R69 (YCBA) Illustration volume; YCBA does not hold text voukme in hard copy. For Text, see Fiche B223 (YCBA)

Royal Academy of Arts bicentenary exhibition, 1768-1968, catalogue [of an exhibition held on] 14 December 1968-2 March 1969. , Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1968, Fiche # 1, p. 45 ; Fiche # 4, p. 36, no. 50, Illus: p. 36, Fiche B223 (YCBA) YCBA also holds the illustration volume in hard copy: See N6764 .R69 (YCBA)

David Sox, Quakers and the arts, plain and fancy, an Anglo-American perspective , Sessions Book Trust Friends United Press, York, England Richmond, Ind., 2000, NX180 R4 S67X 2000 (SML)

Ann C. Van Devanter, American self-portraits, 1670-1973, International Exhibitions Foundation, Washington, DC, 1974, pp. 24-5, ND1311 V36 + (LSF)

Helmut von Erffa, The Paintings of Benjamin West, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1986, pp. 32, 403, 428, 431, 450, 461-62, 479, no. 546, NJ18 W52 A12 +E73 Oversize (YCBA)

R. J. B. Walker, Regency portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, 1985, p. 545 (vol. 1), N1090 A592 (YCBA)

John Wilmerding, In honor of Paul Mellon, collector and benefactor, Essays , National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC & Hanover, NH, 1986, p. 269-86, N7442.2 M455 1986 (YCBA)

Yale University Art Gallery, Painting in England, 1700-1850, from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, [exhibition at] Yale University Art Gallery, April 15-June 20, 1965. , vol. 1, W. Clowes and sons, New Haven, 1965, pp. 57-8 (v.1), no. 216, pl. 67, ND466 Y35 (YCBA)


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