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Williamson. “To John West and Sarah Pearson,” said this western luminary, “a man-child hath been born, on whom God hath conferred some remarkable gifts of mind; and you have all heard that, by something amounting to inspiration, the youth has been induced to study the art of painting. It is true that our tenets refuse to own the utility of that art to mankind, but it seemeth to me that we have considered the matter too nicely. God has bestowed on this youth a genius for art,-shall we question his wisdom? Can we believe that he gives such rare gifts but for a wise and a good purpose ? I see the Divine hand in this; we shall do well to sanction the art and encourage this youth.” The Quakers, persuaded by this sagacious enthusiast, or moved by the belief that the worldly fame which accompanies genius would shed a new halo on their sect, acknowledged the boy's powers upon the principle of implicit faith-gave their unanimous consent, like the “ Brethren” in the Alchymist, to have their lead turned into gold, and forthwith summoned the youth, in whom so many hopes centred, before them.
He came and took his station in the middle of the room-his father on his right hand, his mother on his left, while around him flocked the whole Quaker community. It was one of the women that spake first; but the words of Williamson are alone remembered. “ Painting," said he, “has been hitherto employed to embellish life, to preserve voluptuous images, and add to the sensual gratifications of man. For this we classed it among vain and merely ornamental things, and excluded it from among us. But this is not the principle, but the misemployment of painting. In wise and in pure hands it rises in the scale of moral excellence, and displays a loftiness of sentiment and a devout dignity worthy of the contemplation of Christians. I think genius is given by God for some high purpose. What the
purpose is, let us not inquire-it will be manifest in his own good time and way. He hath in this remote wilderness endowed with the rich gifts of a superior spirit this youth who has now our consent to cultivate his talents for art-may it be demonstrated in his life and works that the gifts of God have not been bestowed in vain, nor the motives of the beneficent inspiration, which induces us to suspend the strict operation of our tenets, prove barren of religious or moral effect !” “At the conclusion of this address," says Galt, “ the women rose and kissed the young artist, and the men, one by one, laid their hands on his head."
That this scene made a strong impression on the mind of West, we have his ,own assurance; he looked upon himself as expressly dedicated to artand considered this release from the strict tenets of his religious community as implying a covenant on his part to employ his powers on subjects holy and pure. The grave simplicity of the Quaker continued to the last in the looks and manners of the artist, and the moral rectitude and internal purity of the man were diffused through all his productions.
Being now left more to the freedom of his own will, West deviated into a course not at all professional, but for which the accommodating eloquence of a John Williamson might have conceived a ready apology. He became a soldier. The Friends had not included this among those pure and pious pursuits, which they ascribed to the future painter of history ; they expressed, however, neither surprise nor sorrow for this backsliding in Benjamin, nor did they either admonish or remonstrate. He took up a musket-inspired with his enthusiasm young Wayne, afterward a distinguished officer--and joining the troops of General Forbes, proceeded in search of the relics of that gallant army lost in the desert by the unfortunate General Braddock.
To West and his companions were added a select body of Indians; these again were accompanied by several officers of the Old Highland Watch-the well-known forty-second, commanded by the most anxious person of the whole detachment, Major Sir Peter Halket, who had lost his father and brother in that unhappy expedition. Though many months had elapsed since the battle, and though time, the fowls of the air, the beasts of the field, and wild men more savage than they, had done their worst, Halket was not without hopes of finding the remains of his father and his brother, as an Indian warrior assured him that he had seen an elderly officer drop dead beneath a large and remarkable tree, and a young subaltern, who hastened to his aid, fall mortally wounded across the body. After a long march through the woods, they approached the fatal valley. They were affected at seeing the bones of men, who, escaping wounded from invisible enemies, had sunk down and expired as they leaned against the trees, and they were shocked to see in other places the relics of their countrymen mingled with the ashes of savage bivouacs.
When they reached the principal scene of destruction, the Indian guide looked anxiously round, darted into the wood, and in a few seconds raised a shrill cry. Halket and West hastened to the place --the Indian pointed out the tree--a circle of sol. diers were drawn round it, while others removed the eaves of the forest which had fallen since the fight. They found two skeletons--one lying across the other-Halket looked at the skulls, said, faintly, “ It is my father !” and dropped senseless in the arms of his companions. On recovering, he said, “ I know who it is by that artificial tooth.” They dug a grave in the desert, covered the bones with a Highland plaid, and interred them reverently. This scene, at once picturesque and pious, made a lasting impression on the artist's mind. After he had
painted the Death of Wolfe, he proposed the finding of the bones of the Halkets, as an historical subject; and, describing to Lord Grosvenor the gloomy wood, the wild Indians, the passionate grief of the son, and the sympathy of his companions, said, he conceived it would form a picture full of dignity and sentiment. His lordship thought otherwise. The subject which genius chooses for itself is, however, in most cases, the best. The sober imagination of West had here a twofold excitement-he had witnessed the scene, and it was American-and had Lord Grosvenor encouraged him to imbody his conception, the result would, I doubt not, have been a worthy companion to the Death of Wolfe.
West was called from the first and last of his, fields by a messenger announcing the dangerous illness of his mother. He hastened home, and arrived only in time to receive the welcome of her eyes and her mute blessing. He loved and honoured her much-and when he was old and gray, recalled her looks, and dwelt on her expressions of fondness and of hope, with a sadness which he wished neither to subdue nor conceal. With the spirit of his mother, the charm seemed to have departed from his father's house ; he seldom spoke of it afterward, and soon forsook it for Philadelphia, where he established himself as a portrait-painter in the eighteenth year of his age.
His extreme youth, the peculiar circumstances of his history, and his undoubted merit brought many sitters. His prices were very low-two guineas and a half for a head, and five guineas for a half length; and the money thus laboriously earned was treasured prudently, to secure, at some future day, the means of travel and study. Young as he was, he had the sagacity to see that travel influenced the public opinion, and that study, and long study, was necessary for him if he really wished to excel. He knew that the master-works of art were in
other lands, and on Rome especially he had already set his heart. So little, indeed, of the genius of the Old World had found its way to the New, that when the accidental capture of a Spanish vessel had placed a St. Ignatius of the Murillo school in the gallery of Governor Hamilton, West copied it without being either aware of its excellence, or even to what style of art it pertained. A Mr. Smith admired so much the posture and sentiment of the saint, that he persuaded the young artist to paint his portrait in the same position ;-a kind of appropriation which saves time and invention, and can give little fame. With better taste he painted the Trial of Susanna, a work which he loved long after to talk of and describe.
From Philadelphia, after painting the heads of all who desired it, he went to New-York; with which place he was not at first much delighted. Eager traffickers from all quarters thronged her streets and quays, and the young painter was elbowed into the shade by those “ Who darkling grub this earthly hole
In low pursuit." Now and then, however, a merchant, after a successful bargain, sat down in the joy of the moment for his portrait; and the wandering mariner, who found markets on the rise, and gains on the increase, hung up his likeness also in the Temple of Fortune. Though art was not in high honour, West, however, found its pursuit profitable: he raised his price of a half length to ten guineas; and the spirit of amassing money seemed in a fair way of making him its own, when a letter from Smith recalled his thoughts to Italy.
The Italian harvest having failed, a consignment of wheat and flour was sent from the New World to the Old, and put under the charge of one of the Allens of Philadelphia, who offered West a passage to Leghorn. It happened that a New-York merchant, of the name of Kelly, was at that time sitting