Abbildungen der Seite

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 encou. raged, 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 halfholyday 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 painter! what sort of a 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, 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 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 groups 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. He had never before heard of Greece or of Rome, or of the heroes, philosophers, poets, painters, and historians, whom they had produced, and he listened, while the lady spoke of them, with an enthusiasm which, after an experience of near seventy years in the world, he loved to live over again. His residence here introduced him to Ross, a lawyer of some note, who lived in the neighbouring town of Lancaster; and Mrs. Ross, who was eminently beautiful, desired to sit to West for her portrait. The people of Lancaster had taste and intelligence; they saw him perform his task with much ability, and came in such crowds to sit to the boy, that he had some trouble in meeting their demands. Those citizens were kindly persons, and easily pleased. A gunsmith of Lancaster, who had a classical turn, proposed a painting of the death of Socrates. West had heard of Socrates, and forthwith made a sketch which his employer called clever : but he had now

begun to feel his deficiencies and see his difficulties. “ I have hitherto painted faces,” said West, “and people clothed; what am I to do with the slave who presents the poison-he ought, I think, to be naked.” Henry, the gunsmith, went to his shop, and returned with one of his workmen, a handsome man, and half-naked, saying, “ There is your model." He introduced him accordingly into the picture-which excited some attention.

West was now fifteen years old; and though the school has been more than once spoken of, his education up to this period had been sadly neglected : indeed, at no period of his life had he any claim to be called an educated man. He was the first and last president of our academy who found spelling a difficulty.

Dr. Smith, a gentleman of considerable classical attainments, perceived his deficiency, and generously undertook the part of instructer ; but the Cherokee Indians seem to have been the only preceptors who went wisely to work with him. This new master pursued a strange enough method. “He regarded him," says Galt, “as destined to be a painter, and on this account did not impose upon him those grammatical exercises of language which are usually required from the young student of the classics, but directed his attention to those incidents which were likely to interest his fancy, and furnish him, at some future period, with subjects for the easel.” This might have done well with a fairer scholar-with West, if it was desired that his imagination should catch the life and spirit of antiquity, he ought to have begun nearer the beginning. It is needless to expect a strong crop, when we have only scratched the surface of the soil.

While picking up those classical crumbs, the youth was attacked by a fever. Every fresh aspect of his early life had something in itremarkable and romantic, When good medicine and good nursing began to


remove his complaint, another adversary invaded his repose. This was a shadowy illusion, which, like an image in a dream, was ever unstable, and changing shape as well as hue. It became first visible in the form of a white cow, which, entering at one side of the house, walked over his bed, and vanished. A sow and a litter of pigs succeeded. His sister thought him delirious, and sent for a physician: but his pulse had a recovering beat in it; his skin was moist and cool; his thirst was gone, and every thing betokened convalescence. While the doctor stood puzzled about a disease which had such healthy symptoms, he was alarmed by West assuring him that he saw the figures of several friends passing at that moment across the roof. Conceiving these to be the professional visions of a raving artist, he prescribed a draught which would have brought sleep to all the eyes of Argus, and departed. As he went, up rose West, and discovered that all those visitations came through a knot hole in the shutters, which threw into the darkened room whatever forms were passing along the street at the time. He called in his sister, showed her the apparitions gliding along the ceiling, then laid his hand on the aperture, and all vanished. On recovering he made various experiments, which he communicated to Williams; who found it to be what Butler calls “a new-found old invention." He produced a London camera obscura ; and West contented himself with the praise due to collateral ingenuity. ...

On returning to Springfield, his future career became the subject of anxious deliberation. Some of his best friends were in favour of his making art his profession; his mother was desirous of distinction for her youngest child, and the father, influenced by the prophecy of Peckover, at length resolved on submitting the matter to the wisdom of the Society to which he belonged.

The spirit of speech first descended on one John

« ZurückWeiter »