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After Benjamin West (1738-1820)

A self-portrait of Benjamin Westwith his son 1775

40.2 x 29.4 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 663719

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  • A mezzotint after a self-portrait of Benjamin West; almost half length, facing front. He is depicted as he draws on a sheet resting on a portfolio, which he supports with his left hand. His small son leans over his shoulder, looking intently at his father's drawing. Set within a fictive circular frame. Inscribed below: B. West, R.A. pinxit, London, 1773. / V. Green, Engraver in Metzotinto to his Majesty, fecit.

    Benjamin West was the first American painter of international repute. He arrived in London at the age of 25 after three years studying in Italy, intending to stop off in England only briefly, but the immediate success of his paintings of ancient history encouraged him to stay. A stipend of £1,000 from George III freed him from the need to paint portraits to earn a living, and his career saw an inexorable rise to the Presidency of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1792, succeeding Sir Joshua Reynolds. The dislike of Queen Charlotte, an ill-advised trip to Napoleonic Paris in 1802, and the antipathy of fellow Academicians precipitated a crisis in his career and the resignation of his Presidency in 1805, but he was persuaded to resume the position the following year and held it to his death; he is thus the longest-serving President in the history of the Academy.  

    The mezzotint reproduces a circular self-portrait painted by West in 1773 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), at the height of his popular acclaim, two years after the exhibition of his most famous painting, The Death of General Wolfe. The composition is geometrically calm, with West’s face shown frontally on the centre-line of the circle, but this Enlightenment rationality is tempered by a familial sensibility, with West’s first son Raphael, six or seven years old, looking over his shoulder at the drawing that he is making, porte-crayon in hand. Although West retained the painting to the end of his life, he collaborated with Valentine Green to reproduce it in mezzotint two years later (the finished state of the plate carries the publication date 13 February 1775). He may have wished to make a public statement, emphasising his respectability as a welldressed and upstanding citizen of his adopted country, for the painting was executed in the year of the ‘Boston Tea Party’, which marked an escalation of his fellow Americans’ revolt against British rule.

    Text adapted from Portrait of the Artist, London, 2016

    Acquired by George III

  • Medium and techniques

    40.2 x 29.4 cm (sheet of paper)

    38.6 x 27.8 cm (platemark)

  • Category
    Object type(s)
  • Alternative title(s)

    Benjamin West with his son Raphael.