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Sailing in American Art

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The Battle of La Hogue, c. 1778

West - Battle of LaHogue

Benjamin West

Andrew W. Mellon Fund

Benjamin West sailed from colonial Philadelphia to Rome in 1760. Visiting London three years later, the American artist decided to stay in England, where he soon became principal history painter to King George III.
A London newspaper's review of the 1780 Royal Academy exhibition stated that The Battle of La Hogue "exceeds all that ever came from Mr. West's pencil." In 1692, Louis XIV of France had mounted an ill-fated attempt to restore James II, a fellow Catholic, to the throne of England. In response, Britain and her Protestant allies, the Dutch, massed their fleets and engaged the enemy for five days off the northern French coast near La Hogue. Nine decades later, West employed much artistic license to devise this patriotic scene that is almost entirely propaganda.

Standing in a boat at the left, for instance, Vice Admiral George Rooke embodies heroic command with his raised sword. Yet he undoubtedly gave orders far from the thick of battle. At the right, a Frenchman deserts his craft with its fleur-de-lis motif. Having lost his wig, he becomes an object of ridicule. West parted the foreground's thick smoke to reveal the French flagship beached in the center distance. Actually sunk a few days before this encounter, The Royal Sun is here imaginatively refloated -- only to be run against the cliffs so that West might better symbolize the French defeat.

About the Artist

Benjamin West - American, 1738 – 1820

American-born Benjamin West was one of the most prominent artists in late eighteenth century London. President of the Royal Academy from 1792 until his death, he received many commissions from George III and other English patrons, and at the same time served as teacher and advisor to three generations of American artists in London. He was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, on October 10, 1738.

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