Thursday, December 22, 2016

What you can and can't get away with

From Robert Hughes' American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, anecdotes on the Colonial art prodigy Benjamin West.
His timing, culturally speaking, was perfect. Politically, it was not. This upsurge of the irrational and demonic in West's work did not please Queen Charlotte, who feared that it would worsen the encroaching madness of her husband. The commission for the chapel was canceled in 1801. Nor did West please George III by showing Death on the Pale Horse in Paris, where Napoleon himself wanted to buy it—thus fulfilling the second half of West's childhood prophecy about himself, since, having consorted so long with a king, he had now attracted the attention of an emperor. But emperor and king had just emerged from a draining and terrible war with each other, and when West returned to London singing the praises of Napoleon as art patron, they fell on cold ears at court. West was so blinded by the effulgence of his own self-esteem that he did not quite grasp how people, in the real world, bore grudges against each other for wars and revolutions. In 1899, having served George III for thirty years, he sent a design to Thomas Jefferson in America with the suggestion that he, only he, could create a suitable memorial to George Washington. The second Vice President of the United States did not respond Perhaps, for once in his life, Jefferson was at a loss for words.
West's formal training as an artist was thin and came late. He was largely self-taught, and a genius. Obviously, this came with some blind spots as well.


susan said...

He wasn't much of an introvert, was he? When I read a bit more about Benjamin West I learned that he refused a knighthood because he thought he should be made a peer of the realm and also that Nelson admired his heroic canvases so much he requested one of his own exploits - perhaps commemorating the Battle of the Nile. The one West eventually painted in Nelson's honour was his heroic death at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Speaking of George III, there are medical historians who believe his 'madness' may have been symptomatic of acute porphyria. You wouldn't have wanted to be treated by the court doctors of that age.

Ben said...

Hughes writes about West's belief that he should be made a peer of the realm as well. Of course it didn't exactly work like that. Not for painters at least. Shipbuilders, maybe.

Sort of a sick irony going along with Nelson's request. He clearly had no idea, even though he was obviously in a dangerous line of work.

George III had many ailments toward the end of his life. His sight and hearing were both fading, and he was in pain from rheumatism. His daughter also predeceased him. So it's not too much of a surprise that he started cracking.