[graphic][ocr errors][merged small]

The incident in the early part of the life of this great artist, which Mr. Ward has chosen us the subject of his picture, and which we have the pleasure to lay before our readers in the present number of the Magazine, was thus described in the March number for last year.

"One of his sisters, who had been married some time before, and who had a daughter, came with her infant to spend a few days at her father's. When the child was asleep in the cradle, Mrs. West invited her daughter to gather flowers in the garden, and committed the infant to the care of Benjamin during their absence; giving him a fan to flap away the

flies from molesting his little charge. After some time the child happened to smile in its sleep, and its beauty attracted his attention. He looked at it with a pleasure which he had never before experienced, and observing some paper on a table, together with pens, and red and black ink, he seized them with agitation, and endeavoured to delineate a portrait; although at this period he had never seen an engraving or a picture, and was only in the seventh year of his age. Hearing the approach of his mother and sister, he endeavoured to conceal what he had been doing; but the old lady observing his confusion, inquired what he


waa about, and requested him to show her the paper. He obeyed, entreating her not to be angry. Mrs. West, after looking some time at the drawing with evident pleasure, said to her daughter, 'I declare he has made a likeness of little Sally,' and kissed him with much fondness and satisfaction. This encouraged him to say, that if it would give her any pleasure, he would make pictures of the flowers which she held in her hand; for the instinct of his genius was now awakened, and he felt that he could imitate the forms of those things which pleased his sight."

There is nothing very remarkable in a boy of seven years old doing the like at the present time, and with example frequently before his eyes; but let it be remembered that the circumstance above related occurred in the midst of a Pennsylvania forest, no less than a hundred and four years ago, and that in addition to the obstacles natural to such a situation for excluding every form of what are called the fine arts, his parents belonged to the Society of Friends, whose principles would render that exclusion still more complete, if, indeed, such were possible. With nothing in his environment that could be suggestive to the attempt, it must have been a pure, original emanation of the child's inventive genius, and the fact that the ink lines were traced with such truthfulness and fidelity that the resemblance was recognised, strikes one as being altogether surprising.

The boy's mind from this time forward became intent on the delineation, on flat surfaces, of such objects in nature as pleased his fancy. An interesting narrative of his early efforts, of the attendant difficulties and his ingenuity in owcoming them, will be found in the number before referred to, written by our esteemed editor, Professor Hart. It is accompanied by a representation of the family homestead and also of the celebrated Springfield Meeting-house, as they appeared one hundred years after the birth of Benj amin. A repetition of those details here will therefore be unnecessary. As it became expedient, when he had attained the age of sixteen, to arrive at some determination as to what should be the future occupation of the youth as a means of livelihood, the council was convened which decided on permitting him to follow the natural bent of his inclinations so strikingly manifested, and study painting as a profession. The docility of Mb character, united to so earnest a devotion to his art, procured him numerous friends, who cheerfully aided him in the cultivation of his mind by wise directions, and afforded him substantial encouragement in his employment. He painted pictures in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, both in portraiture and history, and at the age

of eighteen was fairly established in the city of Philadelphia as an artist. Here he remained about two years, fully employed, and assiduously availing himself of every opportunity of improvement by the study of such works as then existed within his reach. He then removed to New York, whither his reputation had preceded him, and was there enabled to double his prices. At this time his charge for a half-length portrait was £10. Having attained the age of twenty-one years, and earned sufficient money to bear his expenses to Italy, as well as enable him to remain a short time there in the acquisition of a more profound knowledge of the principles of his darling pursuit, he departed in a ship from Philadelphia to Leghorn, laden with grain, the Italian harvest having failed. On first leaving he received an addition to his means from one of his late employers, contributed in a way that did infinite credit to the delicacy as well as liberal spirit of the donor; and after his arrival in the region, filled to overflowing with examples for his instruction, he received from a gentleman in Philadelphia a letter of unlimited credit on his banker in Leghorn, thus converting the hurried visit into a protracted stay of four years' duration.

West's course of study was quite different from that ordinarily pursued; he did not often copy the works from which he might be for the time "hiving" his knowledge, but rather perused them, discovering and making his own the principle on which they were painted. It is indeed matter of surprise that he should have acquired such facility of execution as the pictures he painted immediately after his arrival in England evince. After a few days spent in Bome, his friends, to whom he had presented introductory letters, requested him to exhibit his attainments by the production of a drawing; he replied that he had not much practice in drawing, but that he should be pleased to paint a head. This he accordingly did, and the work was much applauded. By the method of study described his progress was extraordinarily rapid; before leaving Italy he painted two original historical pictures, which gained him academical honours, and immediately on his arrival in England he took his stand as the first historical painter in that country.

In Italy the materials of study were of course vast, but the art as then practised was of but little account. Mengs stood at the head of his profession in Rome, but there was another claiming to be his rival, Pompeo Battoni, of whom Washington Allston related the following anecdote, as told to him by West. "Battoni was at that time 'in full flower,' dividing the empire of Art with Mengs. He received Mr. West very graciously in his painting-room, and after some questions about his country—concerning which he seemed to have no very distinct notion—said, 'And so, young man, you have come—how far is it?' 'Three thousand miles.' 'Ay, three thousand miles from the woods of America to become a painter. You are very fortunate in coming to Rome at this time, for now you shall see Battoni paint.' He thereupon proceeded with his work then on hand, a picture of the Madonna; occasionally exclaiming, as he stept back to see the effect, 'e viva Battoni.'"

In Mengs, West found a generous friend and judicious adviser; indeed he found warm friends everywhere. His personal qualities favoured him, for in addition to prudence, virtue, and industry, he possessed youth and beauty, and fortunate circumstances seem uniformly to have come in his aid always at the right time. Arrived in London, three of his best and most serviceable Philadelphia friends happened to be there before him, ready to introduce him into the most influential circles. Of one of them (Gov. Hamilton) he painted the portrait, and this picture is said to be now in Philadelphia. Thus encouraged, he suffered himself to be persuaded to establish himself in the British metropolis, where his commanding talents soon made an impression that secured him permanent prosperity for the remainder of his long and peaceful life.

While our youthful artist was still in Philadelphia, he formed an attachment to a lady of that city, by whom the feeling was cordially reciprocated. But in this, as in the majority of cases, the course of true love ran anything but smoothly. The proud and aristocratic brother of Miss Shewall scorned the idea, that a member of his family should be degraded by such a union. But the lovers had plighted their troth and remained constant, though parted, and as soon as West was satisfied with his prospects in London, he desired to return to America to see his friends and bring back his bride. But those who watched over his welfare, arranged that his betrothed should come to England in the care of John West, the father of Benjamin. Shewall was however still obdurate, and after other means had failed, the rope-ladder and other adjuncts of romantic adventure, were resorted to by three of West's youthful intimates. The lady, in the darkness of night, was placed on board a Liverpool vessel, and was the next day fairly on her voyage. The painter was in waiting at Liverpool, and the pair were happily married. And a pair they were, living together for fifty years in one unbroken course of perfect harmony. The lady declared, near the close of her life, that her husband "had been all his days with

out fault." At the date of this marriage West was in his twenty-seventh year, and the story of their attachment, with its impediments and crosses, was sufficiently romantic to furnish Mrs. Ellet with the materials for an interesting article, entitled "A Passage in the Life of an Artist," published in the January Number of this Magazine for 1849. It may be well to mention that Mrs. West's niece was the mother of the celebrated Leigh Hunt.

But this meeting was not the only one of interest. Benjamin was the youngest son; but the oldest, who was forty years of age, and a watchmaker at Reading, England, his father was now to behold for the first time. Soon after John West's marriage, in 1724, he left England, for the purpose of exploring a part of Pennsylvania, before fully making up his mind to settle there, whither many of his family connexions had preceded him, being amongst the first of William Penn's colonists. His wife remained behind, and dying at the time of her son's birth, the child was adopted into the family of its relatives, who were all of the society of Friends; and becoming attached to him, begged to be permitted to retain the child when the father sent for it, to which he at length consented. On Benjamin asking his father how London appeared to him after so long an absence, the old gentleman replied, "The streets and houses look very much as they did, but can thee tell, my son, what has become of all the Englishmen? When I left England, forty years since, the men were generally a portly, comely race, with ample garments and large flowing wigs; rather slow in their movements, and grave and dignified in their deportment:—but now they are docked and cropped, and skipping about in scanty clothes, like so many monkeys." West has introduced portraits of both his father and halfbrother, in his celebrated picture of "Penn's Treaty with the Indians." Of this work an engraving is now in progress for this Magazine; the original is at Stoke, in England, in the possession of the lineal descendants of William Penn. At the request of George the Third, West introduced his father and some other Quakers from Philadelphia to a private audience. On this the Prince of Wales (afterwards George the Fourth) remarked, "Yes, the King has always been

fond of Quakers ever since "We dare not

finish the sentence, although spoken by one whom the loyal portion of his majesty's subjects love to style "the finest gentleman in England."

West's introduction to the King was through the zealous friendship of the Bishop of York, who was deeply impressed with the young painter's great abilities, as displayed in his various works, but particularly in a picture painted for himself, illustrating a passage in

« 上一页继续 »