The Most Important Half-Finished Painting in American History

The Most Important Half-Finished Painting in American History

Hanging in a prominent position in the Winterthur Museum in Pennsbury Township, Delaware, is a painting one might think shouldn’t be there at all. It might, to the casual visitor, look like it belongs back in the artist’s studio to be completed. Half of it is blank, after all.

The painting is, however, as complete as it is ever going to be. Visitors gazing at the painting today might visualize in it an America of the late 1700s, an America in the nascent stages of its nationhood, an infant that can finally stand on its own but finds walking slow, cumbersome, and fraught with the danger of failing.

The painting is officially called the American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain, but is more commonly known as the Treaty of Paris. It depicts the signing of the 1783 treaty to end the Revolutionary War and was painted by Pennsylvania-born Benjamin West.

The Death of Socrates, by Benjamin West

West, born October 10, 1738, began painting as a child. He lived in a small, two-story brick house in Springfield that still stands today, at the corner of Goshen Road and Route 252 in Newtown Square. West’s talent proved so substantial that he began during his teenage years to receive commissions to paint portraits. He painted his first historical piece, The Death of Socrates, a detailed, consequential painting (right), when he was just eighteen.

At age twenty-two West found himself in London, where his career flourished. His brilliant work eventually caught the attention of King George III, and he was given the title of “Historical Painter to the King.” West delivered sixty paintings to the King between 1768 and 1801.

It was during that period that King George III was rather heavily engaged in a war with his colonists. After Britain’s surrender at Yorktown in 1781, and after two years of negotiations between the two nations, the king’s historical painter found himself in a perfect position, as an American expatriate living in London, to paint a portrait of the signing of the treaty ending the war.

Benjamin West, Self-Portrait, 1819, six months before his death*

West decided he would place American delegates at one end of a table and British delegates at the other. He would later donate the piece to Congress. “This work I mean to do at my own expense,” West explained, “and to employ the first engravers in Europe to carry them into execution, not having the least doubt as the subject has engaged all the powers of Europe, all will be interested in seeing the event so portraid.”

The final painting would include each nation’s negotiators — John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens for the Americans, and a Scottish merchant named Richard Oswald for the British. The painting also would include the secretaries for both delegations, Franklin’s grandson William Temple Franklin and Oswald’s secretary, Caleb Whitefoord.

Oswald, however, had been forced to resign his position a few weeks prior and was no longer in Paris. Without having Oswald available to sit for him, West was at a loss. He eventually chose to set the work aside and go on with his life.

Benjamin West’s unfinished painting of the Treaty of Paris. From left: John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin. Courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Gift of Henry Francis du Pont.

To look at the painting now is to visualize not just the split between America and Great Britain, but to consider the tenuousness of a brand-new nation. There were genuine leaders aplenty after the war, but there was no national constitution, nor would there be for six more years.

Nothing in the new nation seemed finished. With a population of fewer than four million after the war, America entered a period of social, economic, and political turmoil distinct from the war, yet equally crucial to the country’s survival. The nation began shedding its Britishness and forging an American persona, a process that would take generations.

If ever a piece of art captured the incompleteness, the fragility, the very essence of post-revolutionary America, Benjamin West’s Treaty of Paris was surely it.

  • * “Six months before he died, West looked unflinchingly into the mirror to paint his self-portrait. He holds a drawing pencil and wears a painter’s robe and beaver hat, which identify him as a founder and president of the Royal Academy of Art. The light is strongest on his face and hands, but the rest of the picture falls into shadow, as if he foresaw his own end. West was official painter to the King of England and the first American artist to gain an international reputation. His example led generations of American artists to measure their art and professional identities by European standards.” — Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: