Document Type

Honors Thesis


Art History


Justin Wolff

Committee Members

Michael Grillo, Samantha Jones, Melissa Ladenheim, Liam Riordan

Graduation Year

May 2021

Publication Date

Spring 5-2021


How does one come to be known as the “father of American art,” especially after having never lived in an independent United States? The painter Benjamin West (1738-1820) is an enigma in the history of American art. Although he spent the majority of his life in London, where he worked to establish himself as the leader of the English school of painting, late in life he attempted to portray himself as a genuine American who played a major role in the development of American art. John Galt’s early biography of West, published in 1816, has proved to be instrumental in the promotion of West’s Americanness and served as the blueprint for understanding his legacy for over a century. In recent years scholars have begun to examine West’s identity more closely, discovering his essential slipperiness. This thesis analyzes how West crafted and inhabited a hybrid Anglo-American persona that was fluid and ambivalent. It considers his hybrid identity in personal, aesthetic, political, and historiographic contexts and concludes that West and his biographers manipulated his persona to benefit their professional positions and legacies. However, it also claims that West’s ambivalence was an all-too human emotional response to the disorienting and violent ruptures of the revolutionary era.