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Quakers; and Colonel James West, the friend and companion in arms of the celebrated Hampden, is said to have been the first proselyte of the family. In 1699 they emigrated to America.'
In June 1745, being left to watch a sleeping infant, Benjamin took a pen and made a sketch of the child, which was so like as to be known; and this indication of talent pleased the family, who encouraged him to draw flowers, a practice which he continued at school. Some Indians, also, who came to Springfield, saw these drawings, and gave him instructions how to prepare the red and yellow colours with which they painted their ornaments. He afterward made for himself brushes of cat's hair, obtained some indigo in the wash-house, and executed paintings instead of drawings; and Mr. Pennington of Philadelphia, having seen these performances, sent the young artist a box of paints, with some engravings:
The arrival of the box was an æra in the history of the painter and his art. It was received with feelings of delight which only a similar mind can justly appreciate. He opened it, and in the colours, the oils, and the pencils, found all his wants supplied, even beyond his utmost conceptions. But who can describe the surprise with which he beheld the engravings; he who had never seen any picture but his own drawings, nor knew that such an art as the engraver's existed! He sat over the box with enamoured eyes; his mind was in a flutter of joy; and he could not refrain from constantly touching the different articles, to ascertain that they were real. At night he placed the box on a chair near his bed, and as often as he was overpowered by sleep, he started suddenly and stretched out his hand to satisfy himself that the possession of such a treasure was not merely a pleasing dream. He rose at the dawn of day, and carried the box to a room in the garret, where he spread a canvas, prepared a pallet, and immediately began to imitate the figures in the engravings. Enchanted by his art he forgot the school hours, and joined the family at dinner without mentioning the employment in which he had been engaged. In the afternoon he again retired to his study in the garret; and for several days successively he thus withdrew and devoted himself to painting. The schoolmaster, observing his absence, sent to ask the cause of it. Mrs. West, affecting not to take any particular notice of the message, recollected that she had scen Benjamin going up stairs every morning, and suspecting that the box occasioned his neglect of the school, went to the garret, and found him employed on the picture. Her anger was appeased by the sight of his performance, and changed to a very different feeling. She saw, not a mere copy, but a composition from two of the engravings: with no other guide than that delicacy of sight which renders the painter's eye, with respect to colours, what the musician's ear is to sounds, he had formed a picture as complete, in the scientific arrangement of the tints, notwithstanding the necessary imperfection of the pencilling, as
the most skilful artist could have painted, assisted by the precepts of Newton. She kissed him with transports of affection, and assured him that she would not only intercede with his father to pardon him for having absented himself from school, but would go herself to the master, and beg that he might not be punished. The delightful encouragement which this well-judged kindness afforded to the young painter may be easily imagined; but who will not regret that the mother's over-anxious admiration would not suffer him to finish the picture, lest he should spoil what was already in her opinion perfect, even with half the canvas bare? Sixty-seven years afterwards the writer of these Memoirs had the gratification to see this piece in the same room with the sublime painting of "Christ Rejected," on which occasion the painter declared to him that there were inventive touches of art in his first and juvenile essay, which with all his subsequent knowledge and experience, he had not been able to surpass.'
The works of Du Fresnoy and Richardson on painting having been lent to young Benjamin, the impression made by a perusal of them decided his destination; and the effect of the enthusiasm which they inspired may be imagined from a singular incident:
One of his schoolfellows, on a Saturday's half holiday, engaged him to give up a party at trap-ball to ride with him to one of the neighbouring plantations. At the time appointed the boy came with the horse saddled. West enquired how he was to ride; "Behind me," said the boy; but Benjamin, full of the dignity of the profession to which he felt himself destined, answered, that he never would ride behind any body. "O! very well then," said the good-natured boy, "you may take the saddle, and I will get up behind you." Thus mounted, they proceeded on their excursion; and the boy began to inform his companion that his father intended to send him to be an apprentice. "In what business ?" enquired West; "A taylor," answered the boy. "Surely," said West," you will never follow that trade;" animadverting upon its feminine character. The other, however, was a shrewd, soundheaded lad, and defended the election very stoutly, saying that his father had made choice of it for him, and that the person with whom he was to learn the business was much respected by all his neighbours. "But what do you intend to be, Benjamin ?" West answered, that he had not thought at all on the subject, but he should like to be a painter. "A painter!" exclaimed the boy, "what sort of a trade is a painter? I hever heard of such a thing." "A painter," said West," is a companion for Kings and Emperors." "Surely you are mad," replied the boy, " for there are no such people in America." "Very true," answered Benjamin," but there are plenty in other parts of the world." The other, still more amazed at the apparent absurdity of this speech, reiterated in a tone of greater surprise, "You are surely quite mad." To this the enthusiast replied by asking him if he really intended to be a taylor. "Most certainly," answered the other.
"Then you may ride by yourself, for I will no longer keep your company," said West, and, alighting, immediately returned
It was by painting a death of Socrates that this promising youth first attracted the patronage which was necessary to give a classical turn, or finish, to his education: but an inconvenient omission of the dates of some of these incidents leaves us not minutely informed about them. At sixteen years of age, he invented for himself a camera obscura. Some obstacles of prejudice arose among the Quakers, respecting the education of West for the profession of a painter: but they were overcome by the good sense and authority of liberal men who guided the society; and he was sent for this purpose, in 1756, to Philadelphia: where he resided until 1760, painting portraits chiefly. A Trial of Susanna, however, was one of his compositions at this period. He also painted at New York. His instinctive tendency to picturesque excellence is exhibited in the following anecdote:
He happened, during his residence there, to see a beautiful Flemish picture of a hermit praying before a lamp, and he was resolved to paint a companion to it, of a man reading by candlelight. But before he discovered a method of producing, in daylight, an effect on his model similar to what he wished to imitate, he was frequently baffled in his attempts. At length, he hit on the expedient of persuading his landlord to sit with an open book before a candle in a dark closet; and he found that, by looking in upon him from his study, the appearance was exactly what he wished for. In the schools and academies of Europe, tradition has preserved the methods by which all the magical effects of light and shadow have been produced, with the exception, however, of Rembrandt's method, and which the author of these sketches ventures to suggest was attained, in general, by observing the effect of sunshine passing through chinks into a dark room. But the American artist was as yet unacquainted with any of them, and had no other guides to the essential principles of his art, but the delicacy of his sight, and that ingenious observation of nature to which allusion has been already made.'
In 1760, Mr. West embarked for Livorno or Leghorn, with a view to study art in Rome: where he arrived on the 10th of July, and was obligingly received by Mr. Robinson, afterward Lord Grantham, who took him to a converzatione.
Among the distinguished persons whom Mr. West found in the company, was the celebrated Cardinal Albani. His Eminence, although quite blind, had acquired, by the exquisite delicacy of his touch, and the combining powers of his mind, such a sense of antient beauty, that he excelled all the virtuosi then in Rome, in the correctness of his knowledge of the verity and peculiarities of
the smallest medals and intaglios. Mr. Robinson conducted the artist to the inner apartment, where the Cardinal was sitting, and said, "I have the honour to present a young American, who has a letter of introduction to your Eminence, and who has come to Italy for the purpose of studying the fine arts." The Cardinal fancying that the American must be an Indian, exclaimed, "Is he black or white?" and on being told that he was very fair," What as fair as I am?" cried the Cardinal still more surprised. This latter expression excited a good deal of mirth at the Cardinal's expence, for his complexion was of the darkest Italian olive, and West's was even of more than the usual degree of English fairness. For some time after, if it be not still in use, the expression of as fair as the Cardinal" acquired proverbial currency in the Roman conversations, applied to persons who had any inordinate conceit of their own beauty.
The Cardinal, after some other short questions, invited West to come near him, and running his hands over his features, still more attracted the attention of the company to the stranger, by the admiration which he expressed at the form of his head. This occasioned inquiries respecting the youth; and the Italians concluding that, as he was an American, he must, of course, have received the education of a savage, became curious to witness the effect which the works of art in the Belvidere and Vatican would produce on him. The whole company, which consisted of the principal Roman nobility, and strangers of distinction then in Rome, were interested in the event; and it was arranged in the course of the evening that on the following morning they should accompany Mr. Robinson and his protege to the palaces.
At the hour appointed, the company assembled; and a procession, consisting of upwards of thirty of the most magnificent equipages in the capital of Christendom, and filled with some of the most erudite characters in Europe, conducted the young Quaker to view the master-pieces of art. It was agreed that the Apollo should be first submitted to his view, because it was the most perfect work among all the ornaments of Rome, and, consequently, the best calculated to produce that effect which the company were anxious to witness. The statue then stood in a case, enclosed with doors, which could be so opened as to disclose it at once to full view. West was placed in the situation where it was seen to the most advantage, and the spectators arranged themselves on each side. When the keeper threw open the doors, the artist felt himself surprised with a sudden recollection altogether different from the gratification which he had expected; and without being aware of the force of what he said, exclaimed, "My God, how like it is to a young Mohawk warrior!" The Italians, observing his surprise, and hearing the exclamation, requested Mr. Robinson to translate to them what he said; and they were excessively mortified to find that the god of their idolatry was compared to a savage. Mr. Robinson mentioned to West their chagrin, and asked him to give some more distinct explanation, by informing him what sort of people the Mohawk Indians
were. He described to him their education; their dexterity with the bow and arrow; the admirable elasticity of their limbs; and how much their active life expands the chest, while the quick breathing of their speed in the chace, dilates the nostrils with that apparent consciousness of vigour which is so nobly depicted in the Apollo. "I have seen them often," added he, "standing in that very attitude, and pursuing, with an intense eye, the arrow which they had just discharged from the bow." This descriptive explanation did not lose by Mr. Robinson's translation. The Italians were delighted, and allowed that a better criticism had rarely been pronounced on the merits of the statue. The view of the other great works did not awaken the same vivid feelings. Those of Raphael, in the Vatican, did not at first particularly interest him; nor was it until he had often visited them alone, and studied them by himself, that he could appreciate the fulness of their excellence. His first view of the works of Michael Angelo was still less satisfactory indeed, he continued always to think, that, with the single exception of the Moses, that artist had not succeeded in giving a probable character to any of his subjects, notwithstanding the masterly hand and mind which pervade the weakest of his productions.'
In his visits to the Italian galleries of art, Mr. West appears to have been more interested by colouring than by contour; and he speaks with warmer admiration of Titian's excellence than of that of Michael Angelo. Sir Joshua Reynolds, on the contrary, was more attracted by contour than by colouring, and expresses an opposite judgment. Yet West, drew better than he coloured, and Sir Joshua coloured better than he drew. Is man most prone to admire that which is least within the reach of his attainment?- Mr. West notices the smallness of the horses on Monte Cavallo, when com-` pared with the proportions of the human personages who are leading them; and he suspects that the figures of the quadrupeds. were reduced, according to some unknown principle of antient art. The same relative proportion, however, is observable in the Elgin marbles; and it has been supposed that these proportions are strictly natural, conformable with fact, and that the Greeks had in Phidias's time only a pony-cavalry. A well-managed incident, strikingly told, (p. 119.) first made known to the cognoscenti of Rome the powers of Mr. West as a portrait-painter; and the professional advice, given to him in consequence by the celebrated Mengs, was sedulously and thankfully adopted by the young artist.
The heats of August and the various excitements of his mind having greatly impaired the health of Mr. West, and obliged him to quit Rome, he went to Florence, where he was long confined by ill health. After a stay of eleven months,