"I will let them see if an obscure Yankee boy cannot shine as great as any of them."
- letter from Benjamin West to his aunt, 1784 (cited in Robert Alberts, Benjamin West, (Boston, 1978), at p. 149)
The American Benjamin West was the first internationally known American artist. His avant-garde Neoclassicism and modern history paintings revolutionized European art. West co-founded the Royal Academy of Art and the future National Gallery of London, became President of the Royal Academy, and royal painter to King George III.
Though famed as a self-taught artist, West studied art with William Williams and John Valentine Heidt, and classical culture with the principal of the College of Philadelphia. In 1760 rich Philadelphians financed West's voyage to Italy, where he studied with the artist Anton Raphael Mengs and met Gavin Hamilton. In London, West became the first American to specialize in history painting and to participate in European art movements. Thousands of engravings of his works sold internationally. He mentored three generations of younger English and American artists (including Constable and Gilbert Stuart, West's assistant). West's art was advanced for its time, anticipating later developments in Neoclassicism and Romanticism. His reputation declined after his death.
One of 10 children of a country innkeeper, West initially painted portraits in 1750s Pennsylvania and New York. From 1763 he lived in London, winning fame with the avant-garde Neoclassical paintings he exhibited in 1766-68. West's The Death of General Wolfe (1770), a modern-dress history painting, caused a sensation when shown at the Royal Academy in 1771. West co-founded the Royal Academy of Art in 1768. He was twice elected as its President. From 1769 to 1802, West was history painter to King George III, for whom from the 1780s he painted religious works for the Royal Chapel, Windsor. His late painting anticipated Romantic art.