[1] Studio of Benjamin West PRA, The Graces Unveiling Nature, ca.1779. Photo: RA/John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[2] Studio of Benjamin West PRA, Water, ca.1779. Photo: RA/John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[3] Benjamin West PRA, Death on the Pale Horse, 1783-1803. Photo: RA/British Museum © out of copyright

[4] Benjamin West PRA, Self-Portrait of Benjamin West PRA, 1793. Photo: RA/John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Artist of the Month


Benjamin West PRA (1738-1820)

Benjamin West PRA was born in Pennsylvania in 1738, as one of ten children. Although his family was not artistic, he is said to have studied the arts independently as a child. West came to London after studying in Italy between 1760 and 1763. He developed a very successful practice, which included both history painting and portraiture and became a founder-member of the Royal Academy of Arts.

In 1779 Benjamin West was commissioned to paint five ceiling paintings for the Council Chamber at the Royal Academy's first premises in Somerset House. His The Graces Unveiling Nature [1] was in the centre of the room surrounded by The Elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water [2]. At each end of the room were Angelica Kauffman's Elements of Art: Painting, Composition, Design and Invention. Twelve monochrome paintings by Biagio Rebecca showing famous artists from history surrounded the scheme. West's and Kauffman's paintings were moved to Trafalgar Square in 1837 when the Royal Academy moved to share the National Gallery's premises. In 1868, they were installed in the entrance hall of Burlington House where they will be reinstalled in 2018. Photographic reproductions are on display in Somerset House, in the paintings' original location.

Although the ceiling paintings were commissioned from Benjamin West, it is widely believed that they were in fact produced by Gilbert Stuart who worked for him from 1777 to 1782. The subject for The Graces Unveiling Nature seems to have been inspired by Rubens' Nature Adorned by the Graces (Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum), in which Nature is similarly shown as multi-breasted.

West was commissioned by King George III to paint a cycle of religious scenes for a new chapel at Windsor Castle. This drawing is his first version of his chosen subject Death on the Pale Horse [3]. After the King rejected the image, West produced another oil sketch of the same subject. However, King George cancelled the whole project later describing West's painting as 'a Bedlamite scene'. West returned to the subject independently in 1815, producing the monumental canvas Death on the Pale Horse, which is now in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

West was elected President of the Royal Academy when the first President, Joshua Reynolds PRA died in 1792. Although he resigned in 1805, he was re-elected the following year. West painted this self-portrait in 1793, the year after he was first elected President of the Royal Academy [4]. He is seated on the President's throne surrounded by his artistic and intellectual influences including volumes on Greek and English history and a cast of the Belvedere Torso. Somerset House, which was then home to the Royal Academy, is seen in the background, as though West is a nobleman before his stately home.

Self-Portrait of Benjamin West PRA is hung in the General Assembly Room at Burlington House, which can be seen on free tours of the John Madjeski Fine Rooms.