Saturday, 13 April 2019

An Unfinished "Peace" Painting by Benjamin West, 1782

This painting by Benjamin West of the American peace delegation in Paris, 1782, was never finished. Henry Laurens of South Carolina was part of the reason. 

On October 19, 1781, British general Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington and the French at Yorktown, Virginia. It was the last major battle of the American War for Independence. 

A few months later, in April 1782, American and British delegations began meeting in Paris to negotiate an end to the war. Congress had appointed four men to the America delegation: John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Jay of  New York, and Henry Laurens of South Carolina. 

The British delegation was led by Richard Oswald, who had made a vast fortune in the African slave trade, and David Hartley, son of a famous philosopher of the same name. Hartley was the first MP to argue for the abolition of the slave trade. They must have had an interesting relationship! Both also had American connections, and Hartley had been a firm opponent of British colonial policy and the war. (Below: Oswald and Hartley)

The negotiations dragged on into November. As they drew near their close, artist Benjamin West went to Paris to paint the delegations. (below: Self portrait by West)

The American born West had moved from his native Pennsylvania to England well before the war, to pursue his artistic career. He had earned recognition as a painter of historic subjects, such as "The Death of General Wolfe" (1770). 

More than thirty years later, West would later paint the "Death of Nelson" (1806). Clearly, West had a thing about death scenes. But his aim in Paris was to commemorate peace between his native and adoptive countries.

After West began the painting of the delegations, he ran into problems. Henry Laurens of South Carolina came to Paris only a day before the preliminary treaty was to be signed. Laurens had been imprisoned in the Tower of London for more than a year, until December 1781. After his release, he pled ill health and remained in England, spending some time in the health spa at Bath, "taking the waters." 

In November 1782, Laurens received a letter from Adams informing him that his son John had been killed in a minor skirmish with British foragers at Combahee, South Carolina in August. It was a senseless death, because the war was effectively over. Adams pleaded for Laurens to come to Paris immediately, which he now did. Adams was probably concerned that the delegation had no representative from a Southern state. 

Laurens may have thought that as well. On his arrival, he added a clause to the treaty, requiring the British to return thousands of runaway slaves to their American masters. Oswald conceded it, perhaps because he and Laurens were old business partners in the slave trade. 

Hartley was no longer there, which probably helped Oswald seal the deal. British General Sir Henry Clinton had promised freedom to all runaways who came over to their lines. (In the end, the British refused to hand over the runaways, which soured relations with the US for many years.)

Laurens' late arrival explains why his portrait is only partly complete in the West painting. Laurens is the figure in red standing at the back. To his right are Franklin, Adams, and Jay. The man to Laurens' left is William Temple Franklin, Ben Franklin's grandson and the Americans' secretary.

West would most likely have finished Laurens' portrait despite his tardiness, if he had not faced a much bigger problem. The British delegates refused to sit for the painting. West gave up and left the right side of the painting blank. 

The unfinished painting ended up in Adams' possession. It remained in the Adams family for many years. It currently hangs in the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

In 1816 West would paint one of the Americans again: a famous tribute to his fellow Pennsylvanian, Benjamin Franklin.

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