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Jeniffer Harrison 1

American Art – Fall 2008


Benjamin West – “Death on the Pale Horse”

Jeniffer Harrison
American Art – Fall 2008

Benjamin West
Death on the Pale Horse
1817
Jeniffer Harrison 2
American Art – Fall 2008
Benjamin West – “Death on the Pale Horse”

This paper will analyze Benjamin West’s Death on the Pale Horse

(The Opening of the First Five Seals) (1817) (Fig. 1) in the Pennsylvania

Academy of Fine Arts and its relationship to the Apocalypse. In 1756

West moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he learned painting

from a lay preacher, which may have had an impact on his subject

choices. He later embarked to study art in Europe and was the first

American born artist to move past the limitations of the Colonial portrait

tradition. He expanded his subject matter when taking part in the Neo-

Classical and Romantic Idealism movements. West was also one of the

first artists to realize the commercial and the publicity value of

mechanical reproduction of his works, which were sold by the tens of

thousands in Europe and America. In 1817, West introduced a new

direction in his grand scale painting Death on the Pale Horse. He drew on

contemporary conceptions of the sublime and combined it with both

Christian imagery of the Apocalypse and pagan myth in a frenzy of

movement.

Death on the Pale Horse, The Opening of the First Five Seals by

Benjamin West is oil on canvas painting, measuring 23 3/8 x 50 5/8

inches is signed in the lower right hand corner “Benj. West, October 10,

1817.”i.The subject for this painting is found in the bible in the book of
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American Art – Fall 2008
Benjamin West – “Death on the Pale Horse”

Revelations 6: 8: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name

that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was

given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and

with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.”ii Riding

in the center of the canvas is Death on the pale horse while War, Famine,

and Pestilence ride on a mission of destroying humanity along with him.

The painting, a panoramic view of a battle scene, exhibits some of West’s

finest imagery and clearly and convincingly depicts all the emotion of a

horrifying scene. On the left, scenes of killing by sword, famine, wild

beasts, and pestilence erupt in a fury of violence. On the right side of the

canvas, the white, red, and black horses unleashed in the first three

seals burst out of the thunderous central scene. On the white horse to

the right, Christ is wearing a golden crown and carrying a bow while

gazing into the heavens at the figures robed in white. The portrayal of

Christ in the painting instills a little optimism of salvation in the midst of

the Apocalypse. In the upper left hand corner where a slight amount of

light penetrates the darkened sky, an eagle is seen attacking a heron.iii

The various demons, and furies of Hell and wild beasts contribute to the

terribilita imagery in the painting. The forms in the painting are executed

in a full manner and reinforce the drama of the scene the artist intended.

The rich, dark color palette chosen and chiaroscuro utilized by West

further intensifies the somber mood of the painting. The painterly

surfaces and tumultuous passages built around the horrifying scheme of


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American Art – Fall 2008
Benjamin West – “Death on the Pale Horse”

the Apocalypse and Death moved toward the Romantic impulse in art

and away from the Neoclassical. West’s biblical paintings drew on

contemporary conceptions of the sublime. He combined Christian images

of the Apocalypse and pagan myths in an exited state of movement,

which would foretell the European Romantic movement in art.iv

West had at an earlier time in his life and career worked on

variations of Death on the Pale Horse in smaller paintings and sketches.

There are several known preliminary works attributed to this same

theme leading up to the large painting completed in 1817. West’s

preliminary small oil on canvas of Death on the Pale Horse from 1796 (fig.

2) appears to have been a significant beginning to the subject matter of

the Apocalypse in England. There is little doubt that West’s sketches

and paintings leading up to the painting of 1817 had an impact on the

subject matter chosen by other American and European artists.v Many of

the first sketches were originally initiated in concept for the Revelation

Disposition for the private Chapel of Revealed Religion located in Windsor

Castle for King George III.vi It was not until after 1800 that West’s

depiction of the Revelation’s story would be treated as separate from the

chapel’s scheme.

While West was training abroad in Europe he soon became

recognized for his artistic influence on European and American art.


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American Art – Fall 2008
Benjamin West – “Death on the Pale Horse”

Even though West’s realistic history paintings had brought him

international acclaim, he was additionally known for his biblical

depictions. From the 1780’s until West’s death in 1820, he was

intimately involved in religious narratives. Many works during this time

frame were as a result of a commission for a royal chapel and his

subjects were drawn from a literary source he was intimately familiar

with, the Bible.vii Later commissions for William Beckford’s Fonthill

Abbey and its ‘Revelation Chamber’ contributed further to West’s

development of the Revelation themes. In particular the preliminary

work on the Death on the Pale Horse in 1796, which would lead to the

final rendering of the painting in 1817.viii

Benjamin West’s subject matter of the Apocalypse increased and

decreased repeatedly over the last thirty years of his life and career.

Additionally, some of the content and figures in the various preliminary

sketches and paintings of the Death on the Pale Horse theme were

changed as well. There is speculation that West was personally effected

by the wars that plagued America and Europe during this time and his

allegiances and emotions were subconsciously embedded in these works,

as part of these thirty years, West’s principle patron was King George III

of England. West had put aside the sketches for this scene in 1783

when the “Treaty of Versailles” was signed, ending the American

Revolution. West would later begin reworking the composition in 1796,


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American Art – Fall 2008
Benjamin West – “Death on the Pale Horse”

the same year England was again at war with the French. West

additionally made known his intention to begin work on the final oil on

canvas five months after the “Battle of Waterloo”. During each rendering

West included different battle scenes and symbols; however for the last

two renderings of this theme he was careful to avoid symbols that could

be construed as pro-English or anti-French.ix

Benjamin West’s long career both in the Americas and in Europe

we celebrated due to his inventiveness, kindness, and talent. As a

person, West was generous with his home, his studio, and toward his

students. West’s invention of the “current” historical paintings laid the

groundwork for the American Style separate from Antiquity. Later in his

life all the sketches, preliminary paintings, and final rendering of Death

on the Pale Horse, The Opening of the First Five Seals also had an

enormous impact on the art world in Europe and America, but more

importantly it was a work, which evolved with the painter and the times

he lived in, portraying his inner emotions. It is safe to say that without

the works of Benjamin West it may have been a long time before the art

world moved past portraying political figures in the guise of the Ancients

and an even longer time before such a moving, yet terrifying painting as

Death on the Pale Horse, The Opening of The First Five Seals would be

seen in the Americas.


Jeniffer Harrison 7
American Art – Fall 2008
Benjamin West – “Death on the Pale Horse”

Bibliography

Anbinder, Paul, ed. American Paintings and Sculpture to 1945 In the


Carnegie Museum of Art exh. Cat. (New York: Hudson Hill Press in
association with The Carnegie Museum of Art, 1992).
Carl, Goldstien. "Towards a Definition of Academic Art.” The Art Bulletin,
Vol. 57, No. 1 (1975): 102-109,
http://www.jstor.org/stable/3049342. (accessed October 12,
2008).

"Death on the Pale Horse.” Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum Vol. 26,
No. 138, (1931): 17-22, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3794416.
(accessed October 12, 2008).
Detroit Institute of Arts,
2004,http://www.dia.org/the_collection/overview/viewobject.asp?o
bjectid=64796, (accessed November 13, 2008).

Farmer, Meservey Anne. "The Role of Art in American Life: Critics' Views
on Native Art and Literature, 1830-1865.” American Art Journal,
Vol. 10. No. 1 (1978): 73-89,
http://www.jstor.org/stable/1594110. (accessed September 10,
2008).
"Grove Art Online." 2008.
http://www.oxfordartonline.com.proxy.lib.odu.edu/subscriber/arti
cle/grove/art/T091222?print=true (accessed 10/12/09).

Meyer, Jerry D. “Benjamin West’s Chapel of Revealed Religion: A Study


In Eighteenth-Century Protestant Religious Art.” The Art Bulletin
57, no. 2, (Jun. 1975): 247-265,
http://www.jstor.org/stable/3049373 (accessed October 10,
2008).

Stanley, Allen. “West’s Death on the Pale Horse.” Bulletin of the Detroit
Institute of Arts 50, no. 3, (1980): 137-149.
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American Art – Fall 2008
Benjamin West – “Death on the Pale Horse”

List of Illustrations

Fig. 1: Benjamin West, Death on the Pale Horse, The Opening of the
First Five Seals, 1817 CE, 23 3/8 x 50 5/8 inches, Oil on Canvas,
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Museum and School.x

Fig. 2: Benjamin West, Death on the Pale Horse, The Opening of the
Four Seals, 1796 CE, 23 ½ x 50 ½ inches, Oil on Canvas, DetroitInstitute
of Arts.xi
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American Art – Fall 2008
Benjamin West – “Death on the Pale Horse”

Figure 1. Benjamin West, American, 1738-1820, Death on the Pale


Horse, The Opening of the Five Seals, 1817 CE; oil on canvas, 23 3/8 x
50 5/8 inches. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.xii

Figure 2. Benjamin West, American, 1738-1820, Death on the Pale Horse,


The Opening of the Four Seals, 1796 CE; oil on canvas, 23 3/8 x 50 5/8
inches. Detroit Institute of Arts.xiii
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American Art – Fall 2008
Benjamin West – “Death on the Pale Horse”

End Notes
i.
. "Death on the Pale Horse.” Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum 26, No. 138,
(1931): 17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3794416. (accessed 12 October 2008: 17.
ii
Ibid, 17.
iii
Allen Stanley, “West’s Death on the Pale Horse.” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of
Arts 50, no. 3, (1980): 139.
iv
Jerry D. Meyer, “Benjamin West’s Chapel of Revealed Religion: A
Study in Eighteenth-Century Protestant Religious Art,” Art Bulletin
57(June 1975): 247-248, 257. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3049373
(accessed10 October 2008).
v
Ibid, 139.
vi
Ibid, 17.
vii
Ibid, 247-248.
viii
Stanley, “West’s Death on the Pale Horse”, 142-143.
ix
Ibid, 145-148.
x
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Museum and School,
http://www.pafa.org/Museum/The-Collection/View-All-Works/Large-
image/91/coltypeld_3/pageIndex_17/collid_6744/, 2 November 2008.
xi
Detroit Institute of Arts, 2004,
http://www.dia.org/the_collection/overview/viewobject.asp?objectid=64796, 13
November 2008.
xii
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2 November 2008.
xiii
Detroit Institute of Arts, 13 November 2008.

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