Written by Kiani Ned, Curatorial Intern
Benjamin West was born in 1738 near Springfield, Pennsylvania. As the son of an innkeeper, West encountered people from all walks of life and began to sketch what he saw. He would eventually start painting portraits in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. West’s skill and passion gained him recognition within his community–leading to the sponsorship of a trip to Europe which he used to study and fine-tune his painting skills.
While in Italy from 1760 to 1763, West was greatly influenced and inspired by classical taste and thus painted many scenes from the classical texts of Ancient Rome and Greece, as well as Biblical scenes. In Rome, he studied the paintings and sculptures of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Under the guidance of Neoclassical painter, Anton Raphael Mengs, West eventually adopted the style of Grand Manner painting which is characterized by idealized naturalism, common in classical works of art. He also began to show emphasis on gesture and human facial expression. Benjamin West eventually moved to London, England where he became the official historical painter to King George III during the American Revolution.
West’s painting, Angels Appearing to the Shepherds, was intended to adorn one of the aisle windows in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle in England. In the painting, two winged angels surrounded by cherubim and seraphim announce the birth of Christ. They hold a banner bearing the words “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth Peace, Good Will Towards Men.” West captures this monumental moment in Christian historical theory through carefully controlled but fluid brushwork, and through the animated but subtle poses of the characters in the painting. Benjamin West’s painting emits a kind of enveloping energy and undeniable spirituality, induced in part by his rendering of lucid color. Angels Appearing to the Shepherds, is a fine example of West’s dedication to the Grand Manner painting style.