The various biographies of Benjamin West serve to illustrate an interesting point of history that seems to be often overlooked. Art and the creators of said medium, often create history themselves by simply existing and being controversial in their work. We look at West through our 21st century lens and see no such controversy, but West's mere birth and birthright accord to him the problems of controversy.
West, born in the New World under English rule, and moving back to England before the American Revolution, settled himself into a very interesting spot. He spent some formative years in the America's where ideas were not nearly so solidified as they were on the Island of Great Britain. This seems to have given him a certain dislike for some of the standards of British life, and allowed him to overcome some of the typical standards that he saw. Previously, the focus of painting had been on old figures. DaVinci's The Last Supper is a perfect example. The focus on modern dress and events was a shift in art that has shaped our national history.
He is mentioned by Rather as being one of the first Historical Painters. This leads one to believe that art had previously been presented as a pleasing medium, and had been generally regarded for purely aesthetic reasons. West added meaning and values to those paintings and created a sense of intimacy with various historical settings. In The Death of General Wolfe, West allows us to see who was concerned with this General's demise. All eyes are on the General, whose eyes are looking toward heaven. We also note the men on the right of the painting making a motion as if they are praying.
The story that this painting gives us is one that is complicated as it is controversial.
I think it is also important to note that West was not attempting to be overly political or controversial in his presentation of General Wolfe. It seems he was being a little idealistic (that is, the placement of the Native American), but it does not seem that he was looking to be overly deviant in his portrayal of the scene. Fryd even tells us that the painting has been looked at, historically, as being fairly valid. Only recently do we learn many of the historical errors in the painting. It is then our goal as historians to evaluate this picture and learn what West was thinking in an effort to understand some of the Historical importance of this painting.
As an aside, my wife and I were watching, “The Woodright's Shop,” this morning on UNC-TV. The host of the show was discussing the historical importance of the furniture and something hit me. Understanding Benjamin West is not just about a single historian, the idea is to move beyond the basic understanding of history into a new and meaningful concept of history in education. All too often we have focus on what happened, and completely ignore the impact that it had on the people and their daily lives.
The show demonstrated a table being built. As he was building the table, he was describing the geography of the Island and it's impact on the furniture. He said, “You see there are three sections, England, Scotland and Wales...” This division was important to a historical group of people, significant enough to use it as a design element in that table.
When we understand this, we begin to understand the importance of Benjamin West.