Benjamin West (American, Springfield, Pennsylvania 1738 - 1820 London)
General Thaddeus Kosciusko, 1797
Signed lower left: B. West / 1797; and inscribed on a sheet of paper on the table, center left: Gen1 Co..osko / London
Oil on panel (mahogany)
12 3/8 x 17 7/16 in. (31.5 x 44.3 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, 1946
Because of his valiant efforts on behalf of his country's fight for independence, the Polish general Thaddeus Kosciusko epitomized the Romantic hero. During a brief visit to London in 1797, Kosciusko received many illustrious visitors--including Benjamin West, who composed this intimate and moving portrait from memory.
The Polish general and patriot Thaddeus Kosciusko (Tadeusz Kosciuszko, 1746-1817) was one of many foreign officers who served in the American Revolutionary War.1 He was also a leader in his own country's valiant but doomed fight for independence from Russian domination during the early 1790s. Kosciusko was wounded in battle at Maciejowice in 1794 and taken to Russia as a prisoner. Upon the death of Catherine II and ascension of Paul I as czar in 1796, he was released and--still recovering from wounds received two years earlier--traveled to America via Sweden and London. Kosciusko and an entourage of Polish officers arrived in London in late May 1797, and stayed for a few weeks before sailing for Philadelphia on 19 June. During this time the noted general received visits from many prominent citizens, including Benjamin West.
West's visit on 7 June was described by the English landscape painter and diarist Joseph Farington in his journal entry for 8 June 1797:2 "West saw General Koscioscou [sic] yesterday. He went with Dr. Bancroft & Trumbull.--The Genl. was laid on a couch--had a black silk band round his head--& was drawing Landscapes, which is his principal amusement.--He speaks English, appears to be abt. 45 years of age; and abt. 5 feet 8 Inches high. One side of him is paralytic--the effect of a cannon shot passing over him--He had two stabbs in his back--one cut in his head....He lodges at the Hotel in Leicester Fields formerly the house of Hogarth. West shewed me a small picture which He yesterday began to paint from memory of Koscioscow [sic] on a Couch." Evidently Kosciusko declined to pose for a portrait for West or any other artist, or to even allow them to sketch his likeness.3 Although West (as Farington notes) composed the present painting from memory in his studio, details of the setting correspond with other surreptitious likenesses of the Polish visitor and thus the work probably offers a reasonably accurate transcription of reality.4 In West's portrait, Kosciusko reclines upon a couch, favoring his wounded back and thigh; the crutch propped against the wall at left emphasizes his convalescent state. On a stool or small table in the foreground are a Polish officer's cap--indicating the sitter's nationality--and a ceremonial sword presented to Kosciusko by a contingent of English Whigs.5 The books and papers scattered casually about the small room--some presumably the landscape sketches mentioned by Farington and others--suggest the pastimes of an invalid; the view of St. Paul's Cathedral localizes the scene and situates it during the Polish hero's brief stay in London.Kosciusko's dramatic pose, with one hand pressed to his bandaged forehead, simultaneously suggests "reverie and melancholy as well as debilitated health."6 The gesture alludes to the recurrent headaches he suffered as a result of his battle wounds, and more generally, invokes the Romantic notion of the "defeated leader": a valiant hero who has exerted great spiritual effort in an ultimately tragic cause.West painted this moving and sympathetic portrait not on commission, but to satisfy his personal admiration and respect for Kosciusko as a true contemporary hero. In this aspect, the Oberlin painting can be linked to West's dramatic, monumental scenes from contemporary history, although the unusually small scale and delicate execution of the present work, as well as its appealing informality, create a sense of intimacy unique among West's portraits of contemporary heroes.
Three days after visiting Kosciusko and commencing this portrait, on 10 June 1797, West presented the Polish general with a drawing of Hector Taking Leave of Andromache.7 As Staley has noted, this subject--probably chosen specifically by West--"translated into a Homeric vocabulary Kosciusko's own role in the doomed cause of his country's independence from Russian domination."8 In 1826, six years after Benjamin West's death, the Portrait of General Thaddeus Kosciusko was among 150 works offered for sale by the artist's sons to the United States as the foundation of a national gallery. The offer was rejected, and the paintings sold at auction in 1829.9
M. E. Wieseman
Benjamin West was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, on 10 October 1738. He went to Philadelphia around 1756, where he received a rudimentary classical education at the newly formed College of Philadelphia. West traveled to New York, probably in 1759, then returned briefly to Philadelphia before sailing for Italy on 12 April 1760. He was among the first Americans to visit Italy, and spent about three years there, primarily in Rome, Livorno (Leghorn), and Florence. In Rome, West was most influenced by the works of Titian and Correggio and, among his contemporaries, by Pompeo Batoni, Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798), and Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779): the last two were among the early practitioners of Neoclassicism. West subsequently journeyed north to England, where he arrived in August 1763 and resided for the remainder of his life. He achieved great professional and social success in England, in part because of the "exotic" cachet of being an American. He was a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768, and succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as president of that body in 1792. He received numerous distinguished commissions for portraits and history paintings throughout his career. In 1772, he was appointed historical painter to King George III, a position he held until 1810. West died in London on 11 March 1820. In 1821, West's two artist sons, Raphael (1766-1850) and Benjamin Jr., opened a large gallery in the garden of his home, where many of West's paintings were exhibited until dispersed at auction in 1829.
During his early career, West was primarily active as a portrait painter, and he continued to produce a steady stream of likenesses through the 1780s; later compositions especially show the influence of Reynolds. The majority of West's oeuvre, however, is comprised of scenes from classical history, literary and religious subjects, and increasingly, scenes from British history and recent events. In one of his most famous pictures, The Death of General Wolfe (1770; Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada), West made a radical departure from "grand manner" history painting by depicting a scene from recent history with figures in contemporary dress. As his work developed away from Neoclassicism, West became a leading figure in the Romantic movement at the close of the eighteenth century.
Erffa, Helmut von, and Allen Staley. The Paintings of Benjamin West. New Haven and London, 1986.
Offered for sale by West's sons to the United States in 1826
Sold by them, London (Robins), 22-25 May 1829, lot 138 (£42, to Bone [probably the miniature painter H. P. Bone] for Neeld)
Collection Joseph Neeld, M.P., Grittleton House near Chippenham, Wiltshire
By descent in this family until sold London (Christie's), 13 July 1945, lot 175 (£210, to Knoedler)
With M. Knoedler & Co., New York, from whom purchased in 1946
London, Royal Academy, 1798. Cat. no. 618.
London, West's Gallery, 1822-28. Pictures and Drawings by the late Benjamin West, Esq., President of the Royal Academy. Cat. no. 63.
The Art Institute of Chicago, 1949. From Colony to Nation. 21 April - 10 June. Cat. no. 130.
Williamsburg, Va., Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary, 1951. They Gave Us Freedom. Summer. Cat. no. 48.
The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1951. The French in America, 1520-1880. 14 July - 16 September. Cat. no. 244.
New York, M. Knoedler & Company, Inc., 1954. Paintings and Drawings from Five Centuries: Collection Allen Memorial Art Museum. 3 - 21 February. Cat. no. 54.
Kansas City, Nelson Gallery of Art and Atkins Museum, 1956. The Century of Mozart. 15 January - 14 March. Cat. no. 106.
Malmö, Sweden, Radhüs, 1956. Masterworks from American University Museums (sponsored by the College Art Association). 30 June - 15 July (also shown at Utrecht, Centraal Museum; Birmingham; London, University of London, Senate House; Durham, University of Durham, Kings College; Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Liège, Musée des Beaux-Arts; Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts [as cat. no. 40]; Marburg, University Museum; Tübingen, Tübingen University Museum; and Besançon). Cat. no. 48.
Utica, N.Y., Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art, 1960. Art Across America. 15 October - 31 December. Cat. no. 109.
New York, Graham Gallery, 1962. Benjamin West. 22 May - 30 June. Cat. no. 4.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1963. Style, Truth, and the Portrait. Cat. no. 47.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1966. Treasures from the Allen Memorial Art Museum. 21 July - 11 September. No cat.
The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1968. Romantic Art in Britain, Paintings and Drawings 1760-1860. 9 January - 18 February (also shown at Philadelphia Museum of Art). Cat. no. 53.
The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1989. Benjamin West: American Painter at the English Court. 4 June - 20 August. Cat. no. 44.
The Literature excludes those references that illustrate the painting within an historical or biographical, rather than artistic, context.
Barlow, Joel. The Columbiad. Vol. 2. Philadelphia, 1809, p. 186.
The Port Folio 6, no. 6 (December 1811), p. 552.
Galt, John. The Life and Works of Benjamin West. Vol. 2. London, 1820, p. 231.
Graves, A. The Royal Academy of Arts. Vol. 7. London, 1906, p. 216.
Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 3, no. 3 (1946), no. 18, ill.
Wittkower, Rudolf. "An Exhibition of American Art in Chicago." The Burlington Magazine 91 (1949), p. 254.
Barker, Virgil. American Painting: History and Interpretation. New York, 1950, pp. 204, 207.
Hamilton, Chloe. "A Portrait of General Kosciusko by Benjamin West." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 9, no. 3 (1952), pp. 81-91.
The Nelson Gallery and Atkins Museum Bulletin 1, no. 1 (1956), p. 32, no. 106, fig. 34.
Hamilton, Chloe. "Catalogue of R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund Acquisitions." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 16, no. 2 (Winter 1959), cat. no. 48; no. 3 (Spring 1959), ill. p. 256.
D'Otrange Mastai, M. L. "Benjamin West." Arts Review 14 (June 1962), p. 6.
Art News 61, no. 4 (Summer 1962), p. 46.
Hamilton, Chloe. "Portret Kosciuszki pedzla Benjamina Westa." Biuletyn Historii Sztuki 25, no. 1 (1963), pp. 77-82.
Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, pp. 161-63, fig. 152.
Staley, Allen. In Romantic Art in Britain, Paintings and Drawings 1760-1860. Exh. cat., The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1968, no. 53, pp. 102-3.
Young, Mahonri Sharp. "Romantic Art from Britain." Apollo 87 (April 1968), no. 74, pp. 300-305.
This New Man: A Discourse in Portraits. Exh. cat., The National Portrait Gallery, London, 1968, p. 75, ill.
Flexner, James Thomas, and Linda Bantel Samter. In The Face of Liberty. Exh. cat., Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, 1975-76, pp. 53, 158, pl. 46.
Wilson, Robert. Thaddeus Kosciuszko and his Home in Philadelphia. Philadelphia, 1976, p. 20.
Dillenberger, John. Benjamin West, The Context of his Life's Work. San Antonio, 1977, pp. 201, 207.
Alberts, Robert C. Benjamin West: A Biography. Boston, 1978, pp. 221-22.
Garlick, Kenneth, and Angus Macintyre, eds. The Diary of Joseph Farington. Vol. 3. New Haven and London, 1979, p. 852.
Waterhouse, Ellis. The Dictionary of British 18th Century Painters in oils and crayons. London, 1981, p. 405, ill.
Erffa, Helmut von, and Allen Staley. The Paintings of Benjamin West. New Haven and London, 1986, pp. 130, 133, 249, 525-26, cat. no. 650.
Bialostocki, Jan. The Message of Images. Vienna, 1988, p. 227.
Staley, Allen. "Portraits by Benjamin West." The Magazine Antiques 135, no. 6 (June 1989), p. 1462.
Vaughan, William. L'Art du XIX siècle, 1780-1850. Paris, 1989, pp. 112 and 595.
Staley, Allen. In Benjamin West: American Painter at the English Court. Exh. cat., The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1989, pp. 106-7, 115, cat. no. 44.
Alberts, Robert C. In The Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. Vol. 33. London and New York, 1996, p. 93.
The painting is executed on a horizontally grained mahogany panel, prepared (by the artist?) with a layer of linen fabric affixed to the front and back of the panel. A white ground appears to extend all the way around the panel, more thickly applied on the front than on the back. The paint surface is in very good condition, with some areas of cupping; there are a few small losses and minor retouches at the edges of the panel.
1.The standard biography of Kosciusko is Monica M. Gardner, Kosciusko (London, 1942).
2. Kenneth Garlick and Angus Macintyre, eds., The Diary of Joseph Farington, vol. 3 (New Haven and London, 1979), p. 852. West's companions were Dr. Edward Bancroft, an inventor and physician; and the American painter, soldier, and diplomat, John Trumbull.
3. See Chloe Hamilton, "A Portrait of General Kosciusko by Benjamin West," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 9, no. 3 (1952), p. 89; and Robert C. Alberts, Benjamin West: A Biography (Boston, 1978), p. 222.
4. Compare the portrait of Kosciusko in London by Richard Cosway (engraved by Antonei Cardon and published on 1 January 1798), and the engraving by William Sharp, dated 1800, after a wax portrait by Catherine Andras; both are discussed in Chloe Hamilton, "A Portrait of General Kosciusko by Benjamin West," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 9, no. 3 (1952), pp. 87-90, and ill. p. 83.
5.The visit is recorded by Roger de Piles in his account of Leonardo's art in Abregé de vie des peintres (1699; reprint, Hildesheim, 1969), p. 168.
6. Allen Staley, in Benjamin West: American Painter at the English Court (exh. cat., The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1989), p. 107; see also Jan Bialostocki, The Message of Images (Vienna, 1988), p. 227, on West's portrait of Kosciusko as an image of the "defeated leader."
7. Pencil, pen and ink, watercolor and bodycolor on brown paper, 31.5 x 45.5 cm; Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum; signed upper left: From Benjn West Esq. / to / Gen1 Kosciuszko / London June 10th / 1797. See Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven and London, 1986), pp. 130, 133, 249, no. 165. Kosciusko subsequently gave the drawing to Thomas Jefferson during his visit to America
8. Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven and London, 1986), p. 130.
9. Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven and London, 1986), pp. 150, 160.