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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 taught 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 in 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 canvas prepared for the easel, and six engravings by Grevling. West placed the box on a chair at his bedside, and was unable to sleep. He rose with the dawn, carried his canvas and colours to the garret, hung up the engravings, prepared a palette, and commenced copying. So completely was he under the controul 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 story, and coloured with a skill and effect which was in her sight surprizing. “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. Sixtyseven years afterwards 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.” A similar story is related of Canova–he visited his native place after having risen into eminence, looked earnestly on the performances of his youth, and said, sorrowfully, “I have been malking but not climbing.” 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 man'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 surprized, 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 his son; his sketches and drawings were now openly encouraged, and that he was destined to be a great artist grew more and more the opinion of the family. One of his school-fellows allured him on a halfholiday from trap and ball, by promising him a ride to a 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 painters what sort of trade is a painter ? 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 tailor ?”—“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 afterwards 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 then included in the articles of daily demand in Pennsylvania. A carpenter, whose name is forgotten, gave him three broad and beautiful poplar boards, and planed them smoothly; these, when covered with groupes in ink, chalk, and charcoal, were purchased for a dollar each by a neighbour of the name of Wayne; and Dr. Morris at the same time gave him money to buy panels and pencils for future compositions. “These were the first public patrons of the artist,” says Galt, “and it is at his own request that their names are thus particularly inserted.” That a boy who had some skill in painting lived at Springfield began to be spoken of; and Mr. Flower, a justice of Chester, looked at his works, and obtained leave from his parents to take him for a few weeks to his house. A young English lady was governess to his daughters; she was well acquainted with art, and was also intimate with the Greek and Latin poets, and loved to point out to the young artist the most picturesque passages.