Benjamin West was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, in 1738. West traveled through and lived in Italy from 1760 until 1763, where he discovered Neoclassicism in Rome. His exposure to this new art movement created the basis for his artistic career. Paintings such as Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia exemplify the influence that the sculptural friezes on classical tombs as well as Raphael’s Renaissance frescoes had on West while he was living in Italy. This painting’s scene is based on a play written by Euripides, a classical author. Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia depicts two scarcely clad men who were arrested for the attempted theft of a golden statue of the goddess Diana from a temple. The thieves are brought before Iphigenia, a priestess of Diana, in order to be sacrificed at the altar. But Iphigenia realizes that the man in the red cloth is her brother, Orestes.
In 1763 West settled permanently in London, where he became a founding member (and, later, President) of the Royal Academy, after the death of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). He also served as Historical Painter to King George III from 1768 to 1801, producing some sixty pictures. In the United States, West mainly worked as a portrait painter but in England he received recognition for his historical and allegorical paintings, which exemplify the Neoclassical ideal.
In the later 1760s West became very well-known thanks to Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus. This painting is an important early example of the Neoclassical style which was prevalent in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The New Britain Museum of American Art’s Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles takes its theme from Homer’s epic The Illiad. Achilles grieves beside the body of Patroclus, slain by Hector, the leader of the Trojans. Achilles’s mother, Thetis, brings her son a new suit of armor forged by Vulcan so that he can avenge the death of his friend. West portrayed this subject several times (see the version in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), but only the New Britain canvas includes the Myrmidons, Achilles’s followers. In a departure from the Neoclassical example of virtue, this Achilles appears as a reluctant, brooding hero who must be bribed by his mother to do his duty—more of a tormented Romantic figure. The picture was painted as Britain was preparing for an invasion by Napoleon’s armies and was perhaps intended as a call to arms for West’s adopted country. The NBMAA is proud to display a study of Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles next to the finished painting. The Museum feels that this is a great opportunity for the viewer to see the working process of the artist.
Have you seen Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles yet? Do you enjoy that the Museum exhibits the painting alongside the study or are you mainly interested in the painting? Why or why not? Would you be interested in seeing more studies shown with the finished paintings such as the museum recently did with Boulders of Avila by Peter Blume (1906-1992)? What do you think of West’s classical style and subject matter? How does it relate to historical events of West’s time? Of our time? Can these classical myths be “recycled” from centruy to century and retain their aesthetic and allegorical power? What makes them immortal?