A STUDY OF BRITISH HISTORY PAINTING IN THE 18TH CENTURY.ALTHOUGH NOT AS WELL KNOWN AS HISTORY PAINTING OF THE FRENCH ACADEMY OF CHARLES LE BRUN HISTORY PAINTING IN BRITAIN WAS AN IMPORTANT FEATURE OF ARTISTIC DEVELOPMENT IN BRITAIN: AN APPRECIATION OF THE 4 OUTSTANDING BRITISH HISTORY PAINTERS BENJAMIN WEST (1738-1820) JOHN SINGLETON COPLEY (1738-1815) BENJAMIN HAYDON 1786-1846) AND JAMES BARRY ( 1741-1806) PART 1:

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In this Posting I will start with two American Expatriates who worked in London for most of their Lives. They were both important History Painters. Both Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley made important contributions to History Painting as William Vaughn points out in his book ‘British painting the Golden Age’ as well as describing  the defects of Art Training in Britain.

” In Britain there was neither training nor patronage to enable a sustained School of History painting to come into being”. [1].

” The first 20 years of the royal academy was the time when British history painting received its greatest impetus”. [2].

Vaughn continues to consider  the importance of Benjamin West when he arrived on British shores.

” Among the young artists who caused the greatest stir in Rome around 1750 was the American Benjamin West”. [3].

” When West came to settle in London in 1763 he was able to trade on his Roman experience and rapidly gained a reputation for the noble simplicity of his classical scenes of heroic virtue”. [4].

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Vaughn continues his commentary on West and how his History paintings made him famous in London.

” Yet ironically the picture that made West’s name in the International Art world was a History painting that seemed to fly in the face of all the precepts he then espoused ( death of Wolfe)”. [5].

” For contemporaries West had succeeded by infusing History with poetry revealing a timeless virtue that lay beyond the temporal”. [6].

Benjamin West achieved great wealth and status befriending  the Prince Regent and also succeeded Joshua Reynolds as President of the Royal academy.

” He achieved wealth and status by these means succeeding Reynolds as President of the Royal Academy”. [7].

” The most gifted painter to attempt Modern History painting in Britain (was another American) John Singleton Copley a contemporary of West’s who settled in London in 1775 after having studied in Rome”. [8].

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Vaughn shows how Copley moved from private themes to Public themes with his portrayal of the death of the Earl Of Chatham.

” Copley soon moved from private to public themes commemorating the death of the Prime Minister Chatham and then the death of a Militiaman defending Jersey against the French in 1780. the death of Major Pierson shows a remarkable confident blending of excitement and high Art”. [9].

Matthew Baigel a source I have used before comments on the importance of Copley and West.

” Of the 3 Major painters only Copley had a significant career before the War in the Colonies. In fact he is unequalled as a portraitist in American Art except by Thomas Eakins”. [11].

” Compositionally this meant developing an increasing mastery over 3 dimensional effects into overall harmonious compositions”. [12].

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Baigell continues his comments on Copley.

” Copley would often subtly alter their light and dark tones as well as the directional movements of their forms in order to tie elements more closely together”. [13].

” A painter with uncommon skills of psychological observation Copley looked beyond the geography of his sitters faces. He painted both aristocratic and realistic portraits probing the differences of each”.[14].

Ann Lee Morgan another source I have used also comments on West and Copley.

” Benjamin West widely regarded in Both England and America as the most important painter of his day. He enjoyed a sustained level of International celebrity”. [15].

” His compositions endlessly combine and recombine standard poses and formats derived from the great masters of the Renaissance -Baroque tradition”. [16].

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Lady Beauchamp-Proctor 1778 by Benjamin West 1738-1820

Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida circa 1804-5 by James Barry 1741-1806

Ann Lee Morgan concludes her final comments with an appraisal of West.

” By 1776 he enjoyed widespread acclaim for neo-classical paintings treating ancient themes with the austere and archeologically correct formal vocabulary derived from classical sculpture”. [17].

” It propelled West to leadership of British History painting. In its stoic and emotionally charged interpretation of Ancient History its emphasis on the realistic rendering of every detail and its cold sculptural definition of Form”. [18].

This concludes Part 1 into my investigation into two American Painters who happened to be recognised as British History painters working in London. In Part 2 I will look at James Barry and Benjamin Haydon.

FOOTNOTES

  1. BRITISH PAINTING THE GOLDEN AGE WILLIAM VAUGHN:PG.110
  2. DITTO.PG.111
  3. DITTO.PG.115
  4. DITTO.PG.115
  5. DITTO.PG.115
  6. DITTO.PG.117
  7. DITTO.PG.117
  8. DITTO.PG.117
  9. DITTO.PG.119
  10. A CONCISE HISTORY OF AMERICAN PAINTING AND SCULPTURE:MATTHEW BAIGELL. PG.21
  11. DITTO.PG.22
  12. DITTO.PG.22
  13. DITTO.PG.22
  14. DITTO.PG23
  15. THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN ART AND ARTISTS :ANN LEE MORGAN.PG.515
  16. DITTO.PG.515
  17. DITTO.PG.516
  18. DITTO.PG.516
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