The picture for which this drawing is a study appeared at the Royal Academy in 1805 under the title Thetis bringing armour to her son and was accompanied in the catalogue by a quotation of fourteen lines from the nineteenth book of the Iliad. The picture has since disappeared, but is known from a stipple engraving by William Bond published in 1809, an outline engraving by Henry Moses published in 1811 (fig. 1), and a full-size, but unfinished second version by West himself, now belonging to the Royal Academy.
The composition consisted of three figures: on the right, the dead Patroclus, only partly seen, who has been killed by Hector; at the centre, Achilles, who has withdrawn from the Trojan conflict to mourn his dead friend and companion; and, on the left, Thetis, the mother of Achilles, bringing armour made by Vulcan to replace that belonging to Achilles, and stripped from Patroclus when he was slain. The new armour enabled Achilles to return to battle and avenge the death of Patroclus. A related picture, also shown at the Royal Academy in 1805 (also now lost and known through a lithograph by Henry Corbould) showed Achilles taking up the arms and announcing 'Now to the bloody battle let me bend.' In 1804, when West probably began the pictures, England was in the process of resuming to war with Napoleonic France following the Peace of Amiens, 1802-3, and the artist and his patron may have thought of the summons to Achilles to return to battle as of timely relevance to their own countrymen.
The patron was the eminent collector and champion of the Neo-Classical style Thomas Hope (for whom see D. Watkin, Thomas Hope and the Neo-Classical Idea, London, 1968). Although in the late 1760s West had initially made his reptuation with pictures of classical subjects such as Agrippina landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (Yale University Art Gallery) and The Departure of Regulus from Rome (Royal Collection), he had subsequently moved away from such subjects. His turning to the Iliad in 1804-5 must have been due, at least in part, to Hope, and the severe profiles and strong linear outlines of the finished works were also in accord with Hope's pronounced tastes (and it is worth noting that Henry Moses's outline engraving of the picture, which emphasizes those qualities, was published as the first plate in a volume dedicated to Hope). Nevertheless, we can also discern another important influence at work: that of contemporary French painting which West had seen in Paris on a visit in 1802, made possible by the Peace of Amiens. We know from Joseph Farington's diary that West saw there and admired paintings of classical subjects by Jacques-Louis David and younger artists, notably Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, and his own paintings from the next few years, Thetis bringing the Armour notable among them, give evidence of the depth of his admiration. The present drawing for the arm of the dead Patroclus also tells us that West must have looked at paintings of contemporary subjects by David as well as classical ones, since it strongly recalls the prominent arm of the dead Jean-Paul Marat in David's great Death de Marat painted in 1793 and now at Brussels. David had presented the picture to the Convention, but it was returned to him in 1795 following the fall of Robespierre and was in his studio, where West could have seen it, in 1802.
In addition to the two pictures exhibited in 1805, West painted several other versions of the subject (von Erffa and Staley, 170-5), including a horizontal composition signed and dated 1808 and exhibited in that year, which includes additional awe-struck onlookers (New Britain [Connecticut] Museum of American Art). That later version, like the Hope painting and the unfinished Royal Academy replica, shows the arm of Patroclus in a position corresponding to and dependent upon the present drawing, but the other known versions do not. Nor do any of the large and important group of drawings related to the subject belonging to the Pierpont Morgan Library (see R. Kraemer, Drawings by Benjamin West and his son Raphael Lamar West, The Pierpont Morgan Library, 1975, pp. 43-50, nos. 74-86, and pls. 45-56). Those drawings, and others published by Kraemer, provide a fascinating picture of how the artist went about shaping the composition, as well as testimony to the labour he devoted to it, but the absence of the dangling arm of Patroclus from any of them establishes that this detail must have been a late, if eloquent, addition to the final work. Memory of the unforgettable picture by David seen by West in Paris a couple of years before evidently prompted it.
It has not been possible to trace the present drawing to the 1979 sale.