Benjamin West was born into poverty in rural Pennsylvania, the youngest of ten children, but rose to become the first American artist to train in Italy and command a successful career as a history painter in England.
Born in rural Pennsylvania, trained in Italy, and based in London for the entirety of his career, Benjamin West exemplifies the transatlantic character of colonial-era American art. In England, his success as a history painter propelled him to the position of court painter by 1772. West’s study of the head of a screaming man, believed to be done in preparation for a now-lost painting commissioned by King George III (1738–1820), was likely not drawn from life. It was modeled on the ideas of French artist Charles LeBrun (1619–1690), whose lectures on depicting the passions of the soul were surely known to the academic West. Working out the facial expression of terror, West emphasized the musculature of the man’s neck, jawline, and brow with thick, emphatic strokes. He employed light brown paper as a midtone and rubbed shadows beneath the man’s chin and flying hair. The purpose of the drawing is not entirely understood. In Pharaoh and His Host Lost in the Red Sea, an oil sketch West likely executed prior to Cleveland’s drawing, the dramatic twist of the pharaoh’s screaming head strongly resembles that in Cleveland’s sheet. However, a drawing in Boston believed to depict the lost painting indicates a composition quite different from West’s oil sketch, leaving the role of this crayon study in the creation of the final painting uncertain.
Head of a Screaming Man (recto) Woman and Man Playing Cards (verso)
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