Benjamin West (American, Springfield, Pennsylvania 1738 - 1820 London)
Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, 1766/68(?)
Signed and dated: B.........66
Oil on canvas
39 7/8 x 51 in. (101.3 x 129.5 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, 1961
Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, presents his two sons to be ritually blessed by his dying father. The cool restraint and dignified tone of West's Neoclassical composition underscore the profound implications of his Old Testament subject.
West represented the moving story of Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph with delicacy and classical restraint. At left, a devoted servant tenderly supports the aged patriarch as he performs the blessing. With an anxious expression, Joseph firmly grasps his father's right hand and gestures towards the figure of Manasseh in an attempt to rectify the perceived error. At the far right stands the richly garbed figure of Asenath, Joseph's wife and the daughter of an Egyptian priest.
As the Oberlin painting amply demonstrates, by the mid to late 1760s, West had established himself "not only as the most advanced proponent of the Neo-Classical style, but also as the foremost history painter in England."1 Works executed between 1766 and 1769 are characterized by a predominantly cool, muted palette; carefully modulated gestures and expressions; a pervasive feeling of dignity and gravitas; and an almost iconic simplicity of form and composition. The resemblance to the art of antiquity is further heightened by the conspicuous use of classical garments and accessories, and the arrangement of figures within a shallow, frieze-like space, before an architectural backdrop that lends a rhythmic unity to the scene.
Jacob Blessing was exhibited at the Society of Artists in London in 1768 together with another Old Testament scene, Elisha Raising the Shunamite's Son, also datable to 1766.2 The two paintings have identical dimensions, were both engraved in mezzotint by Valentine Green in 1768,3 and were in the same collections into the twentieth century. They are, moreover, the only biblical scenes the artist exhibited during the 1760s. It has been suggested that the thematic emphasis on children in the two pendants may bear some relation to events in the artist's own life, as his family grew and he was reunited in England with his American father.4
There is some confusion surrounding the date of the Oberlin Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, which is customarily given as 1766. A drawing of the composition in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is dated 1768.5 Differences in detail between the drawing and the painting have suggested to Von Erffa and Staley that the drawing was a preliminary study for the Oberlin picture, and that the now-effaced date on the painting would more likely have also been 1768.6 Moreover, Jacob Blessing was not exhibited until 1768, and it would have been unusual for West to wait two years before exhibiting a finished painting. Nonetheless, the companion picture, Elisha Raising the Shunamite's Son, also bears (or bore) a date of 1766. It is possible that West began the painting now at Oberlin in about 1766, but completed it only in 1768, an idea further supported by the several changes visible in pentimenti (see Technical Data).
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.
Richard, Lord Grosvenor (later the first Earl Grosvenor) (by 1778)
By descent in the family to the second Duke of Westminster (d. 1953)
Sold by his estate, London (Sotheby's), 15 July 1959, lot 128
With John Nicholson Gallery, New York, from whom purchased in 1961
London, Society of Artists, 1768. Cat. no. 177.
New York, Graham Gallery, 1962. Benjamin West. Cat. no. 16.
The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1989. Benjamin West: American Painter at the English Court. 4 June - 20 August. Cat. no. 8.
Barlow, John. The Columbiad. Vol. 2. Philadelphia, 1809, p. 184.
Galt, John. The Life and Works of Benjamin West. Vol. 2. London, 1820, p. 220.
Buckler, J. and J. C. Buckler. Views of Eaton Hall in Cheshire, The Seat of the Right Honorable Earl Grosvenor. London, 1826, p. 4.
Graves, A. The Society of Artists of Great Britain, 1760-1791... . London, 1907, p. 275.
Gatty, Hugh, ed. "Notes by Horace Walpole...on the Exhibitions of the Society of Artists and the Free Society of Artists, 1760-1791." The Walpole Society 27 (1938-39), p. 81 ("1768, no. 177--Jacob blesseth Joseph's two sons. best I ever saw of Him": Walpole).
Reitlinger, Gerald. The Economics of Taste. London, 1961, p. 67.
Stechow, Wolfgang. "'Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph' from Rembrandt to Cornelius." In Antie Kosegarten and Peter Tigler, eds., Festschrift Ulrich Middeldorf. Berlin, 1968, vol. 1, pp. 462-63; vol. 2, pl. 200, fig. 7.
Kraemer, Ruth S. In Drawings by Benjamin West and his Son Raphael Lamar West. Exh cat., The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, 1975, p. 5.
Dillenberger, John. Benjamin West: The Context of his Life's Work. San Antonio, 1977, pp. 20-21, 151 (cat. no. 139), 211, pl. 9.
Foster, Kathleen A. "Benjamin West and the Academic Tradition in Figure Drawing." In A Growing American Treasure: Acquisitions Since 1978. Exh. cat., Museum of American Art of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1984, pp. 9-10.
Erffa, Helmut von, and Allen Staley. The Paintings of Benjamin West. New Haven and London, 1986, pp. 77 ill., 294-95 (cat. no. 250), 314.
Staley, Allen. In Benjamin West: American Painter at the English Court. Exh. cat., The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1989, pp. 21, 113, cat. no. 8, and ill. p. 20.
The original canvas has been lined onto a fine-weave linen fabric with a glue-paste lining; the original tacking margins have been removed. The ground is thinly applied, white or light brown in color, and does not obscure the texture of the canvas. Underdrawing in the figure of the boy kneeling in the foreground reveals alterations in the position of his feet; in addition, the woman's hand holding the tazza was originally painted somewhat higher. There are significant areas of abrasion at the top right, in the woman's blue robe, and in the hair of the servant supporting Jacob. These and other, smaller or less seriously affected areas (the blue cloth over the chair at left, along the bottom left edge, and to either side of the boy kneeling in the foreground) were inpainted most recently during treatment in 1987.7 The signature and date, "B. West 1766," were apparently fully legible in a photograph of the painting taken in 1959, but seem to have been effaced by cleaning prior to the painting's acquisition in 1961. Remnants of the signature and date are no longer visible except under infrared light. In correspondence, Helmut von Erffa felt that the signature was not made by West himself, and may have been a later addition.8
1. Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven and London, 1986), p. 42.
2. Oil on canvas, 101.5 x 127 cm, 1766?, Louisville, Ky., J. B. Speed Art Museum.
3. Mezzotints after Elisha Raising the Shunamite's Son and Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh were engraved by Valentine Green in 1768 and published 1 January 1778 by John Boydell, with a note that indicated both paintings were then in the collection of Lord Grosvenor. Both mezzotints were exhibited at the Society of Artists in London in 1768, nos. 245 and 246, respectively; for these prints after the Oberlin picture and its pendant, see Alfred Whitman, Valentine Green (London, 1902), cat. no. 165; and Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven and London, 1986), p. 294, for a listing of other prints after the painting.
4. Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven and London, 1986), p. 295; see also Staley, in Benjamin West: American Painter at the English Court (exh. cat., The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1989), p. 21.
5.Pen and brown ink with grey and brown washes, heightened with body color on brown paper, 31.8 x 41.3 cm; Philadelphia, Museum of American Art of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Gift of Dr. Edgar P. Richardson, inv. 1984.5.
6. Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven and London, 1986), pp. 294-95.
7. Joan H. Gorman, Paintings Conservator, Intermuseum Conservation Association, Oberlin; treatment record ICA 176/87.
8. Letters dated 11 December 1961, 15 June, 21 August, and 29 August 1962.