First Academies: Benjamin West and the Founding of the Royal Academy of Arts and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
David Brigham, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
“Penn’s Treaty with the Indians” 1771-1772 by Benjamin West, oil on canvas, 75 ½ by 107 ¾ inches Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Gift of Mrs. Sarah Harrison (Joseph Harrison, Jr. Collection)
“Death on a Pale Horse” 1817 by Benjamin West, oil on canvas, 176 by 301 inches Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Born to a Quaker family in rural Pennsylvania, Benjamin West (1738–1820) went on to become one of the most renowned and influential artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While enrolled at the College of Philadelphia (which later became the University of Pennsylvania), its provost William Smith, and a group of local patrons, recognized his native talent and sponsored his travels and studies in Italy and England in the early 1760s. West never returned to Pennsylvania to become the colonies’ first native-born great talent. Instead, he remained in London where he found immediate patronage and acclaim. He became the second and longest serving president of the Royal Academy, as well as court painter to George III.
Benjamin West did, however, welcome three generations of American artistic talent to his London studio. The long list of illustrious American painters includes Washington Allston, Ralph Earl, Samuel F.B. Morse, Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Sully, Gilbert Stuart and John Trumbull. Matthew Pratt memorialized West’s generosity in his 1765 conversation piece, “The American School.” West accepted the invitation to become PAFA’s first honorary academician, and a pedagogical influence, when PAFA, the United States’ first museum and school of fine arts was founded in 1805. This lecture by David Brigham, PAFA’s current president and chief executive officer, explores West’s rise to prominence as the most renowned artist in the English – speaking world and his role in the establishment of art academies in London and the new American republic.
David Brigham joined the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2007 as the Edna S.Tuttleman Director of the Museum, and he was promoted to his current role as president and CEO in 2010. Dr. Brigham served as the Director of Collections and Exhibitions and Curator of American Art at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, from 1996 to 2002. He was Executive Director of the Allentown [Pennsylvania] Art Museum from 2002 to 2007.
Dr. Brigham earned bachelor’s degrees in English and accounting from the University of Connecticut, before earning his master’s degree in museum studies and doctorate in American civilization, both from the University of Pennsylvania. He has published, organized exhibitions and lectured on a broad range of American art from the 17th to the late 20th centuries. His publications include Public Culture in the Early Republic: Peale’s Museum and Its Audience (1995) and American Impressionism: Paintings of Promise (1997). Dr. Brigham has also contributed to Dox Thrash: An African-American Master.