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American Paintings and Sculpture
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Subject: Benjamin West, American, active Great Britain, 1738–1820

Self-Portrait

1758/59

Watercolor on ivory

2 1/2 × 1 13/16 in. (6.4 × 4.6 cm)
Lelia A. and John Hill Morgan, B.A. 1893, LL.B. 1896, M.A. (Hon.) 1929, Collection
1940.529

This self-portrait by Benjamin West is the first miniature painted in watercolor on ivory by an American-born artist. Lacking confidence in his ability to keep the watercolor from forming puddles on the slippery surface, he cautiously applied individual dots, betraying a lack of sophisticated technique. In 1758 or 1759, the struggling young painter offered his self-portrait to Elizabeth Steele of Philadelphia, along with a proposal of marriage. She accepted the love token but not the hand of the man who painted it, because her mother did not approve of West’s “intended profession.” Soon afterward, West left America for good, finally settling in London, where he became the most widely recognized American artist of his generation.

More than sixty years after Elizabeth Steele rejected West’s proposal, her son-in-law John Cook arrived at the London studio of the successful, happily married artist. By way of introduction, Cook presented the miniature. West declared, “Well I remember it. I was then 18 years old, and there is something more about [it] you may not know, and that is we were very much in love with each other.” In accordance with the artist’s wishes, Cook had the silver case containing the portrait inscribed on the reverse: “Benjn West. Aged 18. Painted by himself in the year 1756. & presented to Miss Steele. of Philadelphia.” A potent symbol of thwarted love, the miniature remained in the possession of only two families, first Elizabeth Steele’s and then Benjamin West’s, for about 175 years. Yet the watercolor-on-ivory portrait West painted had significance beyond its purpose as a love token, for it heralded an art form that was to become increasingly popular in the North American colonies.

Geography: 
Made in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Status: 
Not on view
Culture: 
American
Period: 
18th century
Classification: 
Miniatures - Jewelry
Provenance: 

Presented by the artist to Elizabeth Steele (later Mrs. Wallace), Philadelphia; her daughter, Mrs. John Cook; lent by C... Esq (John Cook, died c. 1845) to the Pennsylvania Academy in 1817; his son, William Wallace Cook (died c. 1846); sold by D. Thomas, Philadelphia, in 1847 to Joseph West (the artist’s nephew); given by Joseph West to his son Clement L. West prior to 1857, when the latter advertised it for sale; his daughter, Mrs. Edward Wilcox, by 1875, and then by descent to Colonel Cornelius de W. Wilcox, West Point, N. Y.; Ehrich Galleries, New York, 1922; Mrs. John Hill Morgan, Farmington, Conn., by 1924, to 1940; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn.

Bibliography: 

Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. and Galina Gorokhoff, A Checklist of American Paintings at Yale University (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1982), 167, no. 1744M, ill.

Robin Jaffee Frank, Love and Loss (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), 3, 36-46, fig. 24.

Susan B. Matheson, Art for Yale: A History of the Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2001), 132, fig. 129.

Robin Jaffee Frank, “Telling Tales: Three Small Portraits Punctuate a Bigger Story,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2001): 34, fig. 4.

Paula Bradstreet Richter, Wedded Bliss: The Marriage of Art and Ceremony, exh. cat. (Salem, Mass.: Peabody Essex Museum, 2008), 34, fig. 21.

Jane Kamensky, A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016), 83, ill.

Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of such records is ongoing.