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Benjamin West an American and British painter was born on October 10, 1738, near Springfield, Pennsylvania and latter died on March 11, 1820 in London, England. He began he career studying painting in his native Philadelphia area. After that West then moved to New York City where he established himself as a portraitist. In 1760 West decided to sail to Italy visit the art centers Italy had to offer before settling in London around 1763. The patronage of George III, King of Great Britain and King of Ireland, had freed him of the need to paint portraits for a living, and he became known for historical, religious, and mythological subjects. His “Death of General Wolfe” (1771), as seen in our text book on page 927, aroused controversy for its depiction of modern dress rather than the flowing robes expected in a history painting, but it was one of his most popular works. He never returned to the United States, but through such pupils and followers as Washington Allston, Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale, and John Singleton Copley, he exerted considerable influence on the development of American art in the 19th century.

"Death on a Pale Horse"

I decided to research the art piece her created called “Death on a Pale Horse.” I chose this piece because when I seen the “Death of General Wolfe” in our book it was such a emotional looking piece that had drawn me in; and since we cant use one from the book I wanted to find one that was similar and this is what I came across. “Death on a Pale Horse” has that strong sense of emotions coming out of the painting and draws the viewer in or at least it did for me. West based this work on the Book of Revelation 6:8, in the New Testament in the Bible, in which the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which includes Death, War, Famine, and Pestilence, ravage the earth.  The biblical narrative of the painting was considered to be so complex that it was originally exhibited with a narrative pamphlet for the viewer.  While he had established his reputation as a Neoclassical painter, this late work shows him turning towards the newer Romantic Movement that was sweeping the art world. He was also mindful of Edmund Burke’s artistic philosophy of “the Sublime,” which is the quality of art that is meant to induce intense feelings of wonder in the onlooker.  Many art scholars also state that the colossal scale and tight composition also recall such populist art forms such as dioramas and panoramas, spectacular images that toured galleries and lecture halls across Europe during his time of touring.

This panoramic view of a gruesome battle scene exhibits some of West’s finest imagery and convincingly depicts all the emotion of a horrifying scene. On the left, we can see scenes of killing by swords and spears, wild beasts, extreme famine, and plague erupted by a fury of violence. On the right side of the canvas, we notice the white, red, and black horses as mentioned in the Book of Revelation 6:8, are unleashed as the first three seals erupt forth from the thunderous central scene. On the white horse to the right, it is believed by many scholars that it is Christ. He is wearing a golden crown and carrying a bow while gazing into the heavens at the figures robed in white. The representation of Christ as a warrior in the painting inspires a little optimism of salvation in the midst of the Apocalypse. This was West’s first presence of hope for the viewer in this subject matter. This is suppose to be a very dark and horrifying time in mankind as the Bible describes the coming of the Apocalypse, the end of the human race and the great battle of Heave and Hell. This painting depicts that of every Christian’s deepest fear.

I find it very interesting that he seems to have a thing with painting “Death” sense. As mentioned before in our book and his most popular painting “The Death of General Wolfe” and the “Death on a Pale Horse” are not his only paintings that play with the subject matter of death. Although these two paintings do deal with the subject matter of death they are completely different that intrigues me. With  “The Death of General Wolfe” we have a war scene of a general dyeing and this is a historical event where as with the “Death on a Pale Horse” it is of an event that is for told to happen. I find it interesting though that he was able to let his imagination help with the creating of the “Death on a Pale Horse”; which I feel is a stronger piece than that of “The Death of General Wolfe.”

Works Cited:

  1. The Life and Works of Benjamin West,
    Benjamin West and Hampton L. Carson
    The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography , Vol. 45, No. 4 (1921), pp. 301-319
    Published by: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania
    Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20086457
  2. Benjamin West.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. 29 Feb. 2012 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.