Friday, March 31, 2017

1755 British Gen Wm Johnson saving French Baron Dieskau at Lake George by Benjamin West (1738-1820)

From Europe to the Atlantic coast of America & on to the Pacific coast during the 17C-19C, settlers moved West encountering a variety of Indigenous Peoples who had lived on the land for centuries.
Benjamin West (American artist, 1738-1820) General Johnson Saving a Wounded French Officer from the Tomahawk of a North American Indian depicts William Johnson saving the life of Baron Dieskau at the Battle of Lake George.

The Battle of Lake George

The Battle of Lake George was fought on 8 September 1755, in the north of the Province of New York. The battle was part of a campaign by the British to expel the French from North America in the French & Indian War. On one side were 1,500 French, Canadien, & Indian troops under the command of the Baron de Dieskau & on the other side 1,500 colonial troops under William Johnson and 200 Mohawks led by a noted Native American war chief, Hendrick Theyanoguin. 

Dieskau ordered his Canadians & Native Americans to attack on Johnson's camp. The Caughnawagas did not wish to attack an entrenched camp, the defenders of which included hundreds of their Mohawk kinsmen. The Abenakis would not go forward without the Caughnawagas & neither would the Canadians. Hoping to shame the Indians into attacking, Dieskau formed his 222 French grenadiers into a column, 6 abreast, & led them in person along the Lake Road into the clearing where Johnson's camp was, around which Sir William had hurriedly constructed defensive barricades of wagons, overturned boats & hewn-down trees. Once the grenadiers were out in the open ground, the British gunners, crewing Johnson's 3 cannons, loaded up with grapeshot & cut lanes, streets & alleys through the French ranks. When Johnson was wounded & forced to retire to his tent for treatment, Gen. Phineas Lyman took over command. When Dieskau went down with a serious wound, the French attack was abandoned.

American Artist Benjamin West (1738-1820)

Benjamin West (1738-1820) was the 10th child of a rural innkeeper in Springfield, Pennsylvania, in October, 1738, & died exaulted in London, in March, 1820. Before his ascension to historical allegory painter for English royalty, he began learning his craft as a humble portraitist in Philadelphia. West told John Galt, his biographer, that when he was a child, Native Americans showed him how to make paint by mixing some clay from the river bank with bear grease in a pot.

During his years painting in the British American colonies, his portraits exhibit a modest attempt to emulate the baroque & rococo styles, which he probably observed in Philadelphia.

His modest American portrait compositions also exhibit some knowledge of English mezzotint portraits reflecting the works of Peter Lely (1618–160) & Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723). West told a friend that a "Mr. Hide (Haidt), a German, gave him instruction. Johann Valentine Haidt (1700-1780), a Moravian evangelist & trained artist, painted not just portraits, but also history & religious paintings. Apparently, Benjamin West became determined to paint inspiring historical & religious compositions as well.

He later wrote, "Most undoubtedly had not (I) been settled in Philadelphia I should not have embraced painting as a profession." However, his early move away from Philadelphia to England was necessary for him to work in a country where artists were commissioned to paint inspiring depictions of history's real & imagined indispensable men & women who made extreme sacrifices & performed noble deeds. In the American colonies, the gentry paid for portraits, not inspiration.

Benjamin West became a painter of historical scenes, sometimes including Native Americans, around & after the time of the American War of Independence & the Seven Years' War. During his 22 years in America, he was a fairly typical provincial artist; but his choice to leave the colonies in 1760, for Europe & England led to his appointment as the official painter at the court of King George III & to his becoming co-founder of the Royal Academy in London, where 3 generations of fellow American students would return home from his tutelage to impact the art of the emerging republic.