Benjamin West 1738–1820
Mrs Worrell as Hebe
Oil paint on canvas
1270 x 1003 mm
Bequeathed by Miss Harriet Worrell 1869
Commissioned by Jonathan Worrell (1734–1814), of Barbados, London and Juniper Hall, Surrey; his widow, the sitter, Catherine Worrell (1748–1835); by descent to her daughter, Miss Harriet Worrell (c.1771–1858) from whom bequeathed to the National Gallery, subject to the life interest of her siblings; received by the National Gallery in 1869 after the death of her last remaining sibling; transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1929.
This painting by the American-born painter Benjamin West is a portrait of Catherine Worrell (née Weston; 1748–1835), who had married the wealthy Barbadian landowner Jonathan Worrell (1734–1814) at an unknown date. In the painting Catherine Worrell is presented in the guise of the mythological character Hebe, goddess of youth, and the daughter of Zeus (or Jupiter in the nomenclature of Roman myth) and Hera (Juno). She served as the cup bearer and handmaiden of the gods. Catherine Worrell is shown by West apparently mounting a step up to a plinth or table, on which she rests an ornate classical cup from which Zeus’s eagle drinks. To the top left a heavy green curtain is drawn back; the background beyond is a vague cloudscape evoking the heavenly abode of the ancient gods.
In the authoritative catalogue raisonné of Benjamin West’s work by Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley the portrait is dated c.1775–8 on the basis of its style, compared to other more securely dated works by the artist. The smooth modelling of pale flesh, sharply contoured facial features, and the crisply executed layers of drapery arranged in bold swathes resemble, for instance, the portrait of Mary, wife of Henry Thompson, as the biblical figure of Rachel in a picture signed and dated 1775 (Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia) and the double portrait of Thomas Vesey, First Viscount de Vesci, and Lady de Vesci (signed and dated 1776, private collection) in which the pose of the female sitter has several points of resemblance to the present portrait (notably in the turn of the head and the positioning of the arm nearest the viewer).1 Von Erffa and Staley also note that the majority of the portraits that this painting resembles stylistically are also allegorical ‘and, indeed, most of West’s allegorical portraits date from these years’ (ie. around 1775–8).2
Catherine was Jonathan’s second wife. He had married his first wife, Jane Harrison, in 1760, and moved to England at some point between 1776 and 1782.3 There is no archival record for the marriage of Catherine and Jonathan Worrell, nor is there a baptismal record for their first child, born around 1776, perhaps indicating that both these events took place in Barbados (where few such archival records survive from this period).4 The portrait was, then, probably created on the occasion of the Worrells’ arrival in England, and at a relatively early in their marriage. West had been working in Britain for more than a decade when he produced this picture. He had travelled to Italy from his native Pennsylvania in 1760, spending three years studying art in Rome before relocating to London permanently in 1763 where he pursued a hugely successful career as a history painter, becoming President of the Royal Academy and Historical Painter to George III.
With reference to the use of the figure in the portrait practice of West’s contemporary, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the art historian Nicholas Penny has noted that the mythological character of Hebe ‘seems to have done nothing improper’, in contrast with many of the goddesses and nymphs of ancient literature, ‘so ladies were content to be associated with her, and their husbands and fathers were doubtless gratified by the theme of gracious and decorous service to male needs’.5 The presentation of Catherine Worrell as Hebe would, then, serve to suggest the dignity and restraint of her character as a newly married woman, presumably to the satisfaction of her husband, who would most likely have paid for this portrait as was customary in the eighteenth century. Moreover, the visual style of the painting, which evokes distinguished precedents from Renaissance and ancient art and emphasises the somewhat simplified, sculptural solidity of the forms it describes rather than a sense of material specificity, is intended to elevate and distinguish its subject and the artist himself. Most pertinent was the example of the Sibyls by the seventeenth-century Bolognese artist Guercino (1591–1666), featuring isolated female figures, seated calmly and dressed in fulsome draperies whose broad folds and artful arrangement evoke classical sculptural forms. The strong, clear colours and smoothly modelled paint surfaces of these pictures emphasised a sense or order and restraint which was much admired by art critics of the eighteenth century. These qualities are especially apparent in the treatment of the exposed flesh of the sitters’ face, neck and hands in West’s picture. These are rendered without blemishes and resemble the surface of polished marble, while her facial features are neatly and symmetrically ordered to resemble those of antique sculpture. The hair is pulled back from the face and is raised and made ‘large’ in accordance with contemporary fashions (which involved extensions and additions to elevate the coiffure), but is ornamented with a simple string of pearls and is in its form also resonant of classical hairstyles known from ancient sculptural and pictorial sources (including the familiar figures of the Capitoline Venus and the Venus Felix).6 By appealing to such esteemed visual sources, portraiture could, according to some contemporary art theorists (notably Reynolds in his capacity as President of the Royal Academy) aspire to the condition of high art. In a defining statement of this ‘grand manner’ or ‘grand style’ portraiture, first delivered as a lecture at the Royal Academy in 1771 by Reynolds in his capacity as the founding President of that organisation:
if a portrait–painter is desirous to raise and improve his subject, he has no other means than by approaching it to a general idea. He leaves out all the minute breaks and peculiarities in the face, and changes the dress from a temporary fashion to one more permanent, which has annexed to it no ideas of meanness from its being familiar to us.7
West had been a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768/9 and had established a reputation as the leading proponent of the most severe and ambitious forms of ‘grand style’ painting. He produced several portraits which presented their sitters as figures from classical mythology, and made use of the specific character of Hebe, for example Grizzel Dundas as Hebe c.1777 (private collection) and that of an unidentified woman as Hebe in a portrait of 1778 (with the Sabin galleries in 1986).8 In presenting female sitters as Hebe, West was following the lead of Joshua Reynolds, who painted a full-length portrait of Mrs Philemon Pownall in this guise in the 1760s, and had exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1772 a portrait of the miniaturist Jeremiah Meyer’s young daughter as Hebe.9 Reynolds and West, however, were not the only British artists to paint this theme. At the Royal Academy annual exhibition of 1769, Francis Cotes’s ‘A young lady [in crayons] in the character of Hebe’ (location unknown) was reckoned ‘one of the works gaining attention this year’,10 and a mezzotint was issued in 1771 reproducing a painting by John Berridge of his sister as Hebe, wearing her hair and a costume very like that West gives to Mrs Worrell.11 Gavin Hamilton, internationally famous for his classical history paintings, produced several subject paintings showing Hebe as a half-length figure, and this seems to have formed the main visual model for West. The American painter would have known Hamilton’s work in Italy, and could have had access to the influential engraving after Hamilton’s Hebe by Domenico Cunego, published after 1764.12 West’s portrait follows the broad compositional arrangement of Hamilton’s picture quite closely, although Catherine Worrell, who is identified in contrast to Hamilton’s ideal, is more fully clothed, her costume more complex and rendered in greater specificity, and is turned to engage the viewer’s attention.
In these various respects, West’s painting lays claim to the supposedly universal qualities associated with the classical heritage. But the biographical context of the painting would suggest much more material and local concerns, given the identity of the painter as an American based in London and the Caribbean connections of the sitter. Although Jonathan Worrell was to die in Surrey, he maintained his business links to the Caribbean, where he owned plantations whose profitability rested on the use of displaced Africans and men and women of African descent as slaves.13 So although it was painted in London and destined for a private house in England, the picture’s creation took place in the context of the dynamic circulation of people and money around the Atlantic tying together Britain, America, the West Indies and Africa. Behind the fanciful depiction of a young English woman as a classical goddess, and its appeal to timeless values, lies a history of economic exploitation and psychological and actual violence. Arguably, the universalising claims of classicism itself which maintained a powerful appeal during this era of imperial expansion and global commerce was intended in part to mask the contingent nature of artistic production.
Notwithstanding Penny’s assertion about the moral stability of the figure of Hebe, there were other more eroticised interpretations of the mythological character which took the opportunity to display her flesh and accentuate her youthful attractiveness. The incident included in some mythological accounts – concerning Hebe’s eventual expulsion from the court of the gods following an accident which exposed her indecently to onlookers – was dwelt upon by several contemporary sources.14 In the visual arts the most notable examples include Matthew William Peter’s rendering of Hebe as partly and provocatively undressed (published as a mezzotint by John Raphael Smith on 10 January 1779), Francesco Bartolozzi's stipple engraving after G.B. Cipriani of a topless Hebe (published 27 June 1782) and the same engraver’s rendering in stipple of a partly undressed Hebe by Angelica Kauffmann (published 1 November 1782), while a number of actresses and singers (professional women whose morality was often under suspicion) were compared to Hebe in literary and pictorial form.15
Mrs Worrell as Hebe was bequeathed by Miss Harriet Worrell (c.1771–1858), daughter of the sitter, to the national collection on the following terms:
Our late beloved Mother’s Portrait will, of course, be carefully preserved by my Brothers and Sister as long as they may live, but at their decease I desire it may be given and presented to one or other of the National Picture Gallery’s in order that it may be handed down to posterity, as a specimen of the painting of that Eminent Artist the late Sir [sic] Benjamin West and likewise of female beauty of the last century.16
It was received by the National Gallery in 1869 on the death of Harriet Worrell’s last remaining sibling and put on display with the British art collection at South Kensington.17 It was subsequently transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1929 in one of the periodic transfer of works from the National Gallery to the Tate during the first half of the twentieth century. Like many pictures from the Tate collection it was on loan to a government building in the early twentieth century, in this case to Admiralty House from the 1920s until at least 1947.18