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Benjamin West – Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia

Benjamin West

About Benjamin West

Benjamin West was an Anglo American autodidact painter who could barely spell, but however, he served as a founding president of the Royal Academy of Art in London and was very influential in both continents.

Born in Pennsylvania, was padrone by Native Americans on how to make paint by mixing clay from the river with bear grease in a pot. He had little formal education, but his talent and eagerness to knowledge and artistic imprint gave way to his early portraits and the discovery of the Art world from his youth. When observed by Dr. William Smith, when he moved to Philadelphia, he decided to educate him on artistic grounds and connect him with wealthy and influential people. By 1760 he was a famous portrait painter in New York.

Following his quest of knowledge, he sailed to Europe to visit the Italian Masters, a trip that would mark his career and from which he would never return to his homeland. In Italy, he copied works of Titian and Raphael and was influenced by the neoclassical turn flourishing in Europe. He was well accepted by the Royal court while his visit to London and the King appointed him a historical painter of the court, freeing him form portraiture and initiating his career as a painter of historical and mythical themes in grand scale. He was the famous “American Raphael”, and his Raphaelesque painting was well appreciated by his contemporaries. He was appointed by the King as headmaster of the Royal Academy of Arts which he served to the end of his life.

West was initially a portrait painter, but free of economic indulgencies and financially patronized by the King he was free to create his distinguished historical large-scale paintings, for which he is widely appreciated to this day. One his monumental works is the “Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia.” It discusses the myth of “Iphigenia in Tauris,” the homonymous play by the Greek dramatist Euripides. Orestes and Pylades, her brother and cousin, which she knows not of their identity and descent until she discusses with them when brought before her, they are to be sacrificed for their act of sacrilege. Neoclassicism, the flair in Art to rediscover myths and designs by Ancient Greece, an influential period in the art of the days, is well employed by the artist.

We witness his strong forms and outgrowth in design and synthesis, his strict lines and shapes, and his constructive use of color irradiates the thematic. Form overpacks color in his dense use of design and charismatic synthesis, while color follows the casting and composition, to reveal the ability to sketch and perform the style of painting that follows the line of Poussin. The overpact arrangement of the figures follows a horizontal sequence and laying out of the corpses, allowing for a relaxed composition and strong thesis. The moment is elevated by the deep shadows brushed into color and concentrates the reader on the dexterity of the artist in manipulating color and form. This deep shadowing of the forms is illuminated by the light falling on the protagonists that are surrounded by a more variegated setting and background of second acts.

The figures on the left surrounding Iphigenia and Iphigenia herself stare directly to the two men, who look downwards which propel the eye upon the two men. They are intentionally surrounded by the mass of people on the right who stare in a different direction engaging in different acts igniting a fuzz that also compels the concentration of the observer on the act of the reunion. The shepherd in the middle looks straight to Iphigenia standing behind the two men, absorbing the eye of the spectator on the coincidental encounter of the youngsters. The quadrat opens from left of the painting, from Iphigenia outwardly to the direction of the two men and further to the background where the sky opens up in dark hues, light to the point where the protagonist roles of the figures is not antagonized.

The self-taught artist has managed through hard work and sensitive intuition to master his color and composition, the two axis of painting, in synchronizing history and artistic dexterity, mythical figures with serenity and transcendent forms into creating turbulent thematic areas in calmness and density.

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Benjamin West – Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia


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