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Property from a Private Collection, New York
DRAWINGS BY BENJAMIN WEST, P.R.A. (1738-1820) AND RAPHAEL LAMAR WEST (1769-1850).
by Professor Allen Staley
When Benjamin West arrived in Rome in 1760 as an aspiring artist fresh from the exotically remote wilds of Pennsylvania, he was introduced to the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs, the most respected artist then working in Rome, who would have a major formative influence on the young American. Mengs asked to see a specimen of his drawing, but West was unable to comply, telling an acquaintance: 'that as he had never learnt to draw, he could not produce any sketch like those made by the other students; but that he could paint a little'. So he painted a portrait, by which Mengs was duly impressed (J. Galt, The Life and Studies of Benjamin West, Esq., President of the Royal Academy of London, Prior to His Arrival in England, London, 1816, pp. 119-22). A sketchbook used by the artist in Philadelphia before he crossed the Atlantic, leaving America for good, belongs to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; therefore we know that he did draw before his arrival in Europe, but the comment that he 'had never learnt to draw' reminds us that colonial America in the 1750s allowed him little opportunity for any form of proper training: no copying from antique sculpture or casts, no life classes, no exposure to anatomical instruction, nor even to examples of draughtsmanship by other artists, which he might study and emulate. Although in due course, as President of the Royal Academy, he became an academic artist par excellence, his life's work did not rest upon the solid foundation of an academic education.
In Italy between 1760 and 1763, and then in England from 1763 onwards, West did work hard at pulling himself up by the bootstraps, giving himself the tools necessary to underpin his present and future activities. That entailed drawing, and drawing constantly. The sketchbook and other drawings in this sale give good evidence of the effort. He may have started to use the sketchbook (lot 44) while still in Italy or, if not, certainly shortly after his arrival in England. There are many types of drawing in it, including a few rapid notations of things seen - a carter unloading his wagon, children playing - and many rough sketches of compositions, but it is noteworthy, first and foremost, because of the number of studies of the nude figure, both male and female, that it contains (p. 29, fig. 2). There are also seven anatomical studies, probably made from an écorché rather than from actual dissection, but still, along with the drawings of the figure, demonstrating West's labours to overcome his lack of early academic training and teach himself what he needed in order to paint ambitious historical pictures.
By its nature, the sketchbook consists of private studies and memoranda, none of them signed or dated. Although on rare occasions West did exhibit drawings, and he gave away or possibly sold a handful, most of his drawing was for his own sake, not for public display. Nevertheless, some sheets in this sale are highly finished; many carry signatures and dates, perhaps as marks of the artist's pride in his work; and the dates on them allow us to measure his progress and growing assurance as a draughtsman. Compare, for example, two academic studies of male nudes, lots 32 and 29, dated 1767 and 1783 respectively. In addition to numerous life studies, the drawings include studies after classical sculptures such as the Apollo Belvedere (lot 30) and after Michelangelo (lot 52). A few drawings, such as lot 37, showing philosophers disputing, seem to have been intended as complete works in their own right, in this instance as an impressive exercise in the manner of Salvator Rosa, perhaps also reflecting a competitive goal of rivalling and outdoing a near contemporary, the gifted draughtsman John Hamilton Mortimer.
But, however proficient, even polished, West's drawings may have become, he was primarily a painter of ambitious, complex, and often very large pictures of historical, biblical, and, occasionally, literary subjects. In a long-standing tradition stemming from the Renaissance and nurtured in subsequent academies, the essence of such works was disegno, or design. In West's vocabulary the words 'design' and 'drawing' were interchangeable; when he exhibited two drawings at the Royal Academy in 1784, he identified them as designs: designs for pictures he intended to paint. History painting of the sort West practised depended upon fundamental knowledge of and ability to depict the human figure, hence his many life studies. But the true disegno of his more ambitious works resided elsewhere: in the invention and elaboration of compositions usually incorporating many figures. Before being realized as pictures, those compositions came into being via drawings. Thus, apart from figure studies, the great majority of the drawings in this sale (and of West's known drawings otherwise) are studies for paintings. There are sketches for details such as the arm of the dead Patroclus in Thetis bringing the Armour to Achilles (lot 47), the figure of David in David prostrate, whilst the destroying Angel sheathes the Sword (lot 49), or figures on a boat for Paddington Canal (lot 55). Several drawings are related to the greatest undertaking of West's career: a cycle of biblical paintings intended for the Royal Chapel in Windsor Castle, upon which the artist worked from 1779 until 1801. One drawing squared for transfer records the composition of The Last Supper painted to serve as the chapel's altarpiece and now in Tate Britain (lot 46). Another combines on one sheet scenes of the abating of the waters after the Deluge and Noah's Sacrifice (lot 45), subjects which West subsequently divided into two separate paintings for the chapel. There are also two drawings of Apocalyptic subjects, The Woman clothed with the Sun and A mighty Angel standeth upon the Land and upon the Sea (lots 34 and 33), intended for the never-realised Revelation Chamber in the great Gothic-revival Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, constructed by the eccentric and extremely wealthy William Beckford, who became briefly an important patron of West in the 1790s.
Other particularly interesting drawings are for major works that West had intended to paint but which, for one reason or another, were not carried out. The most impressive and beautiful is certainly the watercolour design of a Last Judgement for the ceiling of the aforementioned Royal Chapel in Windsor Castle (lot 36, fig. 3). Another fascinating and important drawing shows an incident in western Pennsylvania during the French-and-Indian War, proposed as a sequel to the greatest success of West's career and still his best-known work, The Death of General Wolfe (lot 51).
Starting with the sketchbook (lot 44), we can also trace certain subjects that preoccupied the artist for much of his life. One page (p. 73) contains sketches for a depiction of the fright of Astyanax, the infant son of Hector and Andromache, at the sight of Hector's helmet as Hector leaves to return to fight the Greeks. These sketches prefigured a painting of the subject which West exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1767, now lost, but whose composition is known from prints. He returned to the subject in a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771 (sold Sotheby's, London, 12 June 2003, lot 94) and in a drawing, atypically in watercolours, loosely related to it (lot 48). And he returned to it again in a moving drawing dated 1797, now in the Getty Museum, which he presented to the Polish hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko. Other sketches seem to have been first ideas for works which, when they came into being, often at a much later date, took different forms. Two pages in the sketchbook, one slight and very preliminary, the other more elaborated, show Narcissus looking at his reflection in a pool of water (p. 61, fig. 4), a subject West returned to in two paintings dated 1805 and 1808, neither of which repeats Narcissus's kneeling position shown in these early sketches. The sketchbook also contains numerous intriguing compositional studies that do not appear to be related to known or planned paintings. Determining their subjects and how they might relate to the artist's paintings should provide tantalizing challenges for future scholars, but, in the meantime, before such issues are addressed and resolved, the sketchbook provides compelling evidence to us of the fertility of West's mind and the inventive energies that would propel him to the remarkable successes he would soon achieve.
Outside the sketchbook, a few seemingly very late and remarkable drawings of biblical subjects (notably lot 57) provide, in very different form, somewhat unexpected evidence that he retained at the close of his long life a good part of the ambition that had propelled him from the beginning. A question, however, does arise regarding the certainty of whether these late drawings were indeed drawn by the artist. Although their subjects relate them to a major painting upon which he was working (and never completed) at the end of his life, stylistically they do not share the usually distinctive look of most of his drawings. While that could be because he developed a late style still unfamiliar to us and differing from his earlier manner, the possibility also exists that their actual execution was by someone else, most probably his son Raphael.
RAPHAEL LAMAR WEST
With only a few exceptions, the drawings discussed here have a West family provenance, and, as we might expect, the great majority are by Benjamin West, but not all. Raphael Lamar West (1766-1850), the elder of his two sons, was also an artist, and, before the collection was dispersed in 1979 (sold by a descendant of Raphael's daughter), works by Benjamin and Raphael got mixed together. As a dutiful son, Raphael served his father as a studio assistant and played an important role in the production of his immense late paintings: Christ rejected of 1814 and Death on the Pale Horse completed in 1817 (both in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia). In addition to lot 57 just mentioned, a few others (foremost lot 58) show biblical subjects and compositions characteristic of Benjamin West, but their handling appears not only atypical, but too tentative and uncertain for them to be ascribed with assurance to his hand. If they were drawn by Raphael, they might be thought of as family productions, the son serving as draughtsman to record ideas for compositions when his increasingly infirm father, crippled by gout in his right hand, was physically unable to draw them. Alternatively, the shaky line might only reflect the unsteadiness of an octogenarian hand, or possibly West's use of his left hand when gout prevented drawing with the right one.
Raphael has received little attention as an artist in his own right. His name does not even appear in Algernon Graves's basic compendium of Royal Academy exhibitors, in which his works are listed as by an Irish artist, Robert Lucius West. Yet he did exhibit with regularity at the Academy from 1779, when he was all of fifteen years old, until 1791. He also painted a major picture from As You Like It for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. His exhibited paintings have all disappeared, but their titles, such as The Battle between Michael and Satan in 1782 and Satan after his Fall in 1791, both Miltonic subjects, suggest interests akin to Fuseli's. Many of his drawings show scenes of violent conflict more reminiscent of Fuseli or Barry than Benjamin West, and the vigorous broken line with which they are executed, usually in pen and ink, is easily recognisable (for examples, see R. Kraemer, Drawings by Benjamin West and his son Raphael Lamar West, The Pierpont Morgan Library, 1975, figs. 50-2 and pls. 109-110). He also drew landscapes frequently, for which he seems to have had real feeling, and several good examples are in the present sale. Of topographical interest are his views of the then still largely unsettled western New York State (such as lot 60) showing Honeoye Lake, south of Rochester, New York (fig. 5), which he drew during a quixotic trip made in 1798-9 on behalf of his father's patron William Beckford, who was considering buying land in America.
We are grateful to Professor Allen Staley for writing this note and for his help in preparing the following catalogue entries.