Pair of Blown Glass Perfume Bottles
3.25" by 2"; 1" stopper
Benjamin West; American Historical Artists; 19th Century Glass
Mrs. William Mayhew, 1934
Today’s Artifact Ambassador picks up the story from the conclusion of America’s War for Independence. This pair of blown glass perfume bottles was owned by renowned American painter Benjamin West. West not only had the distinction of painting a portrayal of the peace treaty which ended our Revolution, but also of making a significant impact in the world of art.
Benjamin West was born in 1738 to a small-town Pennsylvania family. He described teaching himself to draw at an early age with pen and ink for lack of any better drawing materials. His first paintings, however, came when he was taught by Natives how to produce the paints they used in their ceremonial art. West immediately applied these new substances to his artwork and eventually, through the encouragement of his family and many others, became one of America’s first recognized American-born artists—one who would go on to be considered one of the innovative masters of this era of historical painting. Following the American Revolution, West painted such scenes as the (uncompleted) Treaty of Paris, as well as many other American, European, Classical, and religious historical compositions. He later traveled to Europe to pursue his painting career in Italy and England, where he was treated with acclaim.
West’s artistic innovations inspired the work of many subsequent painters, including his pupil John Trumbull who painted one of the most widely recognized and striking portrayals of America’s quest for independence. However, West’s own story holds a deeper significance to the overall history of the post-Revolutionary 18th century. Professional painting was generally considered a European art. West’s entry into the field as an American-born-and-taught artist is demonstrative of America’s pursuance of international legitimacy, transitioning from a Colonial extension of Britain to a sovereign power in its own right. While painting was hardly a major component of this endeavor, West’s story of starting with uniquely American culture and traditions—in his case even influenced by Native Americans—and then exporting it to the world represents the way in which all of America’s leaders were thinking at the time. The goal was to develop America’s culture and commerce at home in order to become a respected economic player in the eyes of the world.
Leaders of this era held two competing conceptions of how this was to be achieved. Simply put, one group, led by Thomas Jefferson, believed that America could specialize in agriculture, picking up from its pre-revolutionary tradition of producing raw goods, to become a world competitor. Alexander Hamilton’s contingent, however, identified a need to become a haven for industrial and consumer commerce. This dissonance in vision would have a major impact on the first half of the 19th century. West’s story, with its inclusion of America’s Native inhabitants, also introduces us to a question which would again come to the fore in America as the century turned: How should these Euro-Americans with their newly forged nation relate to the continent’s indigenous peoples?
Check back March 15 for the continuation of the story embodied by our next Artifact Ambassador.