Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

and atheistical principles of France, and the love of sordid gain which stained the character of England; and declared that the day and the hour were at hand, when those countries would be desolated with the tempest of God's vengeance—the mass of the atheists and money-changers swallowed up—and the terrified remnant would seek refuge in happy America. The pains of premature labour came upon Mrs. West during this terrible sermon—she shrieked out—the women formed a circle round her, and carried her from the field; and such was her agitation of mind, that she had nearly expired before she reached her own house. She continued dangerously ill for twelve days, when (October 10th, 1738) she was safely delivered of her youngest son, Benjamin.

This made some impression on the mind of John West, and as the presumption of man generally interprets such occurrences in his own favour, he imagined that something more than common was indicated for the fortunes of the.child. Peckover, glad, no doubt, to find that his wild sermon instead of rebuke brought praise, warmly supported the belief of the credulous Quaker, and desired him to watch over his son with more than ordinary solicitude. "For a child," said he, " sent into the world under such remarkable circumstances, will assuredly prove a wonderful man." One lucky prediction establishes the fame of the prophet, but there are thousands on whose future fame friends and parents fondly reckoned, in whose favour " remarkable circumstances" too condescended to occur, and who remain inglorious in spite of the stars.

From one thus ushered into life by sermon and prophecy much was looked for. Nothing, however, happened till his seventh year, when little Benjamin was placed with a fly-flap in his hand to watch the sleeping infant of his eldest sister, while his mother gathered flowers in the garden. As he sat by the cradle, the child smiled in sleep; he was struck with its beauty, and seeking some paper, drew its portrait in red and black ink. His mother returned, and snatching the paper, which he sought to conceal, exclaimed to her daughter, " I declare he has made a likeness of little Sally!" She took him in her arms and kissed him fondly. The drawing was shown to her husband, the prediction of Peckover recurred to his fancy, and he expressed his hope that the boy would become some day very eminent. If he meant as an artist, how this was to come to pass must have seemed, however, not so clear: there were neither professors, paintings, nor prints among the primitives of Pennsylvania.

Yet West was born amid circumstances not unfavourable to the deveiopement of his powers. The benevolent fraternity of Quakers had that simplicity of manners, and that serenity of look which artists love; while around them the nations of Europe had scattered their children as thick as the trees of the forest. The gay Frenchman, the plodding Dutchman, the energetic Englishman, and the laborious Scot—all were there, each emblazoned with the peculiarities, and speaking the peculiar language of his native soil. The wilderness, too, had its picturesque tribes, who presented a school of nature for the study of the naked figure; and it appears that West was early aware of some of these advantages.

When he was some eight years old, a party of roaming Indians paid their summer visit to Springfield, and were much pleased with the rude sketches which the boy had made of birds, and fruits, and flowers, for in such drawings many of the wild Americans have both taste and skill. They showed him some of their own workmanship, and taugh/ him how to prepare the red and yellow colours with which they stained their weapons; to these his mother added indigo, and thus he was possessed of the three primary colours. The Indians, unwilling to leave such a boy in ignorance of their other acquirements, taught him archery, in which he became expert enough to shoot refractory birds, which refused to come on milder terms for their likenesses. The future President of the British Academy, taking lessons in painting and in archery from a tribe of Cherokees, might be a subject worthy of the pencil.

The wants of West increased with his knowledge. He could draw, and he had obtained colours, but how to lay those colours skilfully on, he could not well conceive. A neighbour informed him that this was done with brushes formed of camels' hair; there were no camels :n America, and he had recourse to the cat, from whose back and tail he supplied his wants. The cat was a favourite, and the altered condition of her fur was imputed to disease, till the boy's confession explained the cause, much to the amusement of his father, who nevertheless rebuked him, but more in affection than in anger. Better help was at hand. One Pennington, a merchant, was so much pleased with the sketches of his cousin Benjamin that he sent him a box of paints and pencils, with canvass prepared for the easel, and six engravings hy Grevling. West placed the box on a chair at his bedside, and was unable to sleep. He rose with the dawn, carried his canvass and colours to the garret, hung up the engravings, prepared a palette, and commenced copying. So completely was he under the control of this species of enchantment, that he absented himself from school, laboured secretly and incessantly, and without interruption for several days, when the anxious inquiries of the schoolmaster introduced his mother to his studio with no pleasure in her looks. But her anger subsided as she looked upon his performance. He had avoided copyism, and made a picture composed from two of the engravings, telling a new II.—B

story, and coloured with a skill and effect which was in her sight surprising. "She kissed him," says Galt, who had the story from the artist, " with transports of affection, and assured him that she would not only intercede with his father to pardon him for having absented himself from school, but would go herself to the master and beg that he might not be punished. Sixty-seven years afterward the writer of these memoirs had the gratification to see this piece in the same room with the sublime painting of Christ Rejected, on which occasion the painter declared to him that there were inventive touches of art in his first and juvenile essay, which, with all his subsequent knowledge and experience, he had not been able to surpass."

In the ninth year of his age he accompanied his relative Pennington to Philadelphia, and executed a view of the banks of the river, which pleased a painter, by name Williams, at that time residing there. This Williams's works—the first specimens of true art that the boy had seen—affected West so much that he burst into tears. The artist was surprised, and declared, like Peckover, that Benjamin would be a remarkable man. "What books do you read?" said Williams; "you should read the lives of great men." "I read the Bible and the Testament," replied West; "and I know the history of Adam, and Joseph, and Moses, and David, and Solomon, and the Apostles." "You are a fine boy," said the other, "and ought to be encouraged. I shall send you two books which you will like much." He sent him, accordingly, Du Fresnoy and Richardson, with an invitation to call, whenever he pleased, and see his pictures. The books and the pictures made the love of art overcome all other feelings, and he returned home, resolved to become a painter. John West was struck with the growing intelligence and expanding mind of the boy; his sketches and drawings were now openly encouraged, and that he was destVtd to be a great artist grew more and more the opinion of the family.

One of his school-fellows allured him on a halfholyday from trap and ball, by promising him a ride to H neighbouring plantation. "Here is the horse, bridled and saddled," said his friend, " so come, get up behind me." "Behind you!" said Benjamin; "I will ride behind nobody." "Oh, very well," replied the other, "I will ride behind you, so mount." He mounted accordingly, and away they rode. "This is the last ride I shall have," said his companion, "for some time. To-morrow I am to be apprenticed to a tailor." "A tailor!" exclaimed West; "you will surely never be a tailor?" "Indeed, but I shall," replied the other; "it is a good trade. What do you intend to be, Benjamin?"—"A painter." "A painter! what sort of a trade is a painter 1 I never heard of it before."—" A painter," said this humble son of a Philadelphia Quaker, "is the companion of kings and emperors." "You are surely mad," said the embryo tailor; "there are neither kings nor emperors in America."—" Aye, but there are plenty in other parts of the world. And do you really intend to be a ta'lor?"—"Indeed I do; there is nothing surer." "Then you may ride alone," said the future companion of kings and emperors, leaping down; "I will not ride with one willing to be a tailor." This incident, it is said, together with his skill in drawing, which now began to be talked of, drove the schoolboys of Springfield to walls and boards, with chalk and ochre. This was only a temporary enthusiasm, and soon subsided; yet many of their drawings, West afterward said, were worthy of the students of a regular academy. Their proficiency, then, had surpassed his own; for even when at Rome he was unwilling to show his drawings, considering them as imperfect and incorrect.

He was often at a loss for the proper materials of his art; pencils, and colours, and panels were not

« ZurückWeiter »