The original chalk drawings of two lost paintings by American portrait and history painter, Benjamin West, surface at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions’ sale of Old Masters & 19th Century Works on Paper on Thursday 24th July 2014.
The black chalk on buff paper of Moses, 1787, [Lot 12] and another of St. John the Baptist, 1787, [Lot 13] by Benjamin West (1738-1820) appear to be preparatory studies for two large-scale oil painting, Moses Showing the Brazen Serpent and St. John the Baptist, that West produced in the late 18th century.
Although the final paintings, along with two others, later served as the basis for the engraved illustration in Thomas Macklin’s Bible, published circa 1793, their current location is at present unknown.
Alongside Macklin’s engravings, these rare drawings provide the first real insight into how West’s lost paintings may have originally appeared.
In The Paintings of Benjamin West Von Erffa and Stanley suggest that the two lost paintings may have formed the outer wings of a triptych centred around West’s The Resurrection, now held in St George’s Parish Church, Barbados.
Known in England as the ‘American Raphael’, West was a pioneer of historical painting, having studied under Gavin Hamilton and Anton Raphael Mengs in Rome.
He was the first painter in Britain to receive critical acclaim for featuring contemporary clothing in his historical canvases, was made charter member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 and was appointed the official Royal history painter in 1772.
As one would expect, the composition of these drawings differ somewhat to Macklin’s illustrations, but the execution and style sit well when compared with the other grand and formidable compositions that West was producing following his contact with philosopher Edmund Burke in the 1780s (cf. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Head of a Screaming Man, 1792, no.1967,130.a)