Hot History: Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley's Bold Art Revolution at the MFAH

In the late 18th century before the Revolutionary War, a good number of English citizens were pish-poshing the very idea of a United States of America.

So the thought of former colonists creating any kind of unique art worth looking at -- much less comparing to centuries of British tradition -- was not keeping many of King George's gallery walkers up at night.

But nobody told that to Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley. Though the American-born artists (Pennsylvania and Massachusetts respectively) had relocated back to the mother country by the time the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, their unique American perspective and practice of a new genre of painting ensured their massive success in London.

Unfortunately, the formerly close friends also became bitter rivals. Their work, evolving personal relationship, and the growing global culture in which they lived in is the focus of the new Museum of Fine Arts original exhibit, "American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World."

The exhibit -- curated by Copley expert Emily Neff and West expert Kaylin Weber -- will feature oil paintings, works on paper, sculptures, and items from both men's lives and careers.

"West and Copley created a new kind of painting called 'contemporary history.' And while artists before them had painted images of current events like battles, none had done with all the bells and whistles that they brought to the table," Neff says.

"The paintings were large scale, contained references to Greek and Roman and Old Masters art, and were dramatic and theatrical. It was an utterly new approach at the time."

Also on display are works by their contemporaries and other artifacts (like some collected on Captain James Cook's voyages to the Pacific Ocean) to help illustrate the emerging "global" culture that West and Copley lived through. It was a time when intercontinental travel and culture-sharing became more frequent.

The area that will undoubtedly receive the most museum foot traffic is where the two paintings many consider to be the artists' signature works - West's The Death of General Wolfe (1779) and Copley's Watson and The Shark (1778) - will hang side by side. And for the first time in more than 60 years anywhere.

"Though they were painted in the 18th century, they resonate today with a number of contemporary issues," Neff says of these two works. "Celebrity culture, the global economy and consumer culture, communities encountering diverse ethnicities, and a reliance on news to create public opinion are all there."

But in real life, the two men didn't hang so close. Though both started out as great friends and were key members of the Royal Academy of Art, Neff says that Copley became a "thorn" in West's side.

And the intense competition the two engaged in for patronage (the primary way artists supported themselves), respect of their peers, and even the favor or disfavor of King George III put them at loggerheads both personally and artistically.

"One thing to keep in mind is during this time, artists generally practiced in five different areas: history painting, portraiture, everyday life, landscape, and still life," Neff says. "History was the most distinguished for the artist, but it wasn't easy to find patrons to commission these large, expensive, and time-consuming paintings. Pure and simple rivalry shattered their once close friendship."

Even West and Copley's wives - once the best of gal pals - stopped playing cards together in 1788. The horror!

"Their personal relationship was destroyed. But their competition with one another brought out the best in their art," Neff sums up. "And it gives you an idea of the grandeur and ambition of these two colonial artists, who created images of empire and nation-building during a time of war, revolution, and political tension."

American Adversaries runs October 6-January 20 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. 713-639-7300 or www.mfah.org

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