Benjamin West

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by Robert C. Alberts Houghton Mifflin Co., 525 pages, 75 illustrations (mostly photographs of paintings), $20.00

When Benjamin West, the revered painter and teacher of painters, died in 1820, he seemed assured of a secure place in history. Yet less than fifty years after his death, his canvases were bringing “only furniture prices,” and a prominent critic referred to him as “the monarch of mediocrity … this old pig-headed painter. …” In fact, Alberts says, “the critics slew him over and over again.” Only since the 1930’s has a calmer appraisal rescued his reputation.

This rich, leisurely biography, the first in 150 years, reveals an extraordinarily single-minded and generous man. West left America in 1760, when he was twenty-one, because he wanted to study art, and there were few paintings to look at or painters to learn from in America. He soon settled permanently in England, painting prodigiously, and teaching, succoring, promoting other young American artists who followed him abroad. He became King George Ill’s friend and official painter, and even managed the delicate feat of preserving that relationship during the American Revolution. He persuaded the art-minded King to sponsor a brotherhood of artists, the Royal Academy, and served twenty-seven terms as president of this talented and touchy group.

Albert’s biography—both solid and amusingly gossipy—should help to reinstate West as the “Father of American Art.”