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In “American Work of Benjamin West” William Sawitzky argues that “When today the bulk of his work fails to stir our imagination and to satisfy us aesthetically, it is owing to the fact that emotionally and artistically he was incapable of touching great heights or depths and even at best remained a second rate technician”. This paper will try to refute this claim by analyzing the emotional intensity and break away from tradition in West’s works, using formal analysis of Benjamin West’s Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus.

Based on a dramatic episode from Roman history, the scene shows the widowed Agrippina returning to Rome carrying the ashes of her assassinated husband, Germanicus, whose rising career abruptly ended when a political rival poisoned him in Antioch. West takes as his subject heroic death, and the fictional aspects of his composition are blended within the factual accuracy of history. Borrowed motifs appear throughout the picture but mostly appear in the central group of figures. The figural group recalls Ara Pacis Augustae with the treatment of draperies and the child clinging to his mother’s robe. The background architecture is based on another Roman example, the palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro on the Dalmatian coast. West modifies these borrowed motifs from classical art to fit into his narrative and uses them not to embellish his inventions but as a way of evoking the look and the feeling of ancient world to better illustrate his subject. In this sense, West resolves the competing claims of factual accuracy and art within the bounds of painting and becomes not a technician but a “poetic inventor” (Prown). This skillful borrowing elevates West from being a second-rate to a …

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…se references and brings a whole new meaning to his historical narratives and moves the viewer. In so many ways, this work exceeds the idea of a narrative and understands that the purpose of a painting is to be in dialogue with other paintings of the past and combining them to move forward. This work may not be result of pure artistic imagination like Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights but it still achieves to touch the great depth of sorrow of the ancient times by internalizing, modifying and possibly overcoming the works of the past and makes something authentically its own.

Prown, Jules David. Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: Transforming Visions of the American West. New Haven: Yale UP, 1992. Print.

Works Cited

Prown, Jules David. Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: Transforming Visions of the American West. New Haven: Yale UP, 1992. Print.

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