An exhibition focusing on Benjamin West’s first version of Death on the Pale Horse, opened at the Royal Academy
in February in the Tennant Room. This striking drawing, depicting the Apocalypse, was produced in 1783 as part of a commission from George III, but the King eventually rejected it as a ‘Bedlamite scene’. West nevertheless pursued the composition independently, reworking his original study to produce a final, monumental painting in 1817.
Based on the Book of Revelations, the drawing depicts the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with Death in the centre, crowned and wielding bolts of lighting. West intended to include this scene in a cycle of religious paintings for George III’s new chapel at Windsor Castle. However, the whole project was cancelled in 1801. The King’s comment on Death on the Pale Horse associates apocalyptic imagery with madness and disorder, in spite of its biblical credentials. This has been explained not only in terms of the King’s concern for his sanity but also in connection with the volatile political climate of the late 18th century. It may be no coincidence that this scene of conflict and destruction was produced just as the American War of Independence drew to a close. West’s subsequent versions of the same scene can also be related to contemporary events including the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Battle of Waterloo.
Death on the Pale Horse is displayed alongside a small group of West’s watercolours, drawings and sketchbooks from the Royal Academy Collection to explore his skills as a draughtsman as well as the fascination with apocalyptic imagery which emerged during this turbulent age of revolutions and wars. On show are further drawings for the Windsor project including Moses Striking the Rock and historical scenes such as Prince Bladud in Exile. In addition, the artist’s 1793 self-portrait and his painting Christ Blessing Little Children hang in adjoining galleries while his ceiling paintings of the Four Elements and the Graces unveiling Nature can be seen in the Front Hall of the Royal Academy.
West was born in Pennsylvania, U.S.A., in 1738, but achieved his greatest success in Britain. Moving to London in 1763, he rapidly established himself as one of the country’s leading artists. His status was confirmed when he became a founder member of the Royal Academy in 1768 and he was shortly afterwards appointed History Painter to the King. In 1792 he succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as the Academy’s second President.