- Benjamin West 1738–1820
- Oil paint on canvas
- Support: 1384 x 1854 mm
frame: 1480 x 1935 x 77 mm
- Presented by W. Wilkins 1827
Benjamin West 1738–1820
Leonidas Ordering into Banishment Cleombrotus
Oil paint on canvas
1384 x 1854 mm
Presented by W. Wilkins 1827
Inscribed by the artist ‘B West PINXIT / 1768’ in paint bottom right.
Probably purchased from the artist in 1770 by Samuel Smith (1727—1798) of Clapham or by William Lock (1732–1810) of Norbury; recorded as with Samuel Smith by 1791; his son, William Smith, MP (1756–1835), London, from whose collection sold at Christie’s, London, 8 June 1819; bought by John Bartie; …; William Wilkins, RA (1778–1839), London, who presented it to the British Museum, London, 1827; passed to the National Gallery and given an inventory number (121) 1827; transferred to the National Gallery, London, 1856, but considered by the Trustees of The British Museum to be their property until they formally relinquished their interest in 1868; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1929.
The subject is taken from ancient Greek history, related by the classical author Plutarch (c.50–120 AD) in his ‘Life of Agis’. The setting is the interior of a temple, with Leonidas II, King of Sparta, challenging his son-in-law, Cleombrotus, who had briefly usurped him. Leonidas is shown standing towards the centre of the composition, his arms outstretched stiffly before him. Leonidas is shown seated, his head covered by his cloak, in anxious reflection. He is accompanied by his wife, Chelonis, who leans against him and holds the first of their two children by the hand. To the left of the composition, and to the far right, a range of bystanders bear witness: a crowd of soldiers and two older men to the left; two robed gentlemen to the right.
The painting is executed in a range of muted colours, with the blues, reds, greens, pink, flesh tones and yellows all tending to a pallid greyness. The painted surface appears restrained and uniform, built up with small, controlled brushstrokes with few visible traces of the manipulation of paint, and conveying a greater concern with relaying tonal shifts than the specific qualities of different surfaces: flesh, stone and fabric are rendered in a similar fashion. The thirteen figures seen whole or in part in the composition are ranged across a shallow plane set some way into pictorial space, but against a flat architectural backdrop. Given the number of figures contained within a relatively small extent of canvas and the evident resolve with which they have been painted, West must have planned this composition carefully through preparatory drawings and paintings. A ‘Sketch, in oil, of Leonidas Ordering Cleombrotus into Banishment, on paper’ is noted in early nineteenth-century lists of works on show in the artist’s gallery in Newman Street, London, but the location of this work is currently unknown.1 A chalk drawing of the figure of Leonidas posed and dressed almost exactly as depicted in the final picture is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (DYCE.1776)
As related in a contemporary magazine, Literary Register, the full story is as follows:
Leonidas, King of Sparta, suspecting a conspiracy was forming against him, fled to the temple of Minerva for shelter, whereupon Cleombrotus, his son in law seized the government. When Leonidas was informed of this he made his escape, taking his daughter with him, who chose rather to fly with her father than reign with her husband. Some time after Leonidas being restored to the throne, he advanced at the head of a band of soldiers to the temple where Cleombrotus, upon this change of affairs, had himself fled for refuge. He there reproached him with great warmth for assuming the regal power, in violation of the ties of affinity between them, and for expelling him from his own country in so ignominious a manner. Cleombrotus, who had nothing to answer to these approaches, continued seated in a profound silence, and with an aspect which sufficiently testified his confusion. His wife Chelonida [Chelonis] stood near with her two children at her feet. She had been equally unfortunate as a wife and a daughter: but was equally faithful in each of those capacities, and had always adhered to the unfortunate side. All those who were then present melted into tears at so moving a sight, and were struck with admiration at the virtue and tenderness of Chelonida, and the amiable force of conjugal love.2
By treating a serious moral theme from ancient literature in a restrained pictorial style redolent of the most prestigious artistic models (notably the seventeenth–century artist Nicholas Poussin), the painting was designed to occupy the highest rank in the hierarchy of artistic genres promoted by the traditions of academic art theory. West, who was American by birth and had first spent a period in Italy in the mid–1760s studying art before coming to London in 1763, was a pioneering figure in the creation of a British ‘grand manner’. The painting was first exhibited at a special exhibition of the Society of Artists in 1768, and again at the Royal Academy’s second annual exhibition of contemporary British art in 1770. These exhibitions, and the foundation of the Royal Academy itself in 1768, made public the high aspirations of a group of artists, including West, who were seeking to secure royal patronage and to elevate themselves from the larger community of metropolitan practitioners by affiliating themselves to the most rarefied and high–minded traditions of art. Given the longstanding shortage of Church, state or royal patronage for history painting in Britain, and a tradition of critical antipathy towards the more abstract and idealistic modes of art, this development was both adventurous and contentious. For West these years marked a moment of rapid professional ascent, based on the production of serious classical paintings and leading to royal patronage and (in 1772) the title of Historical Painter to the King. In 1771 he wrote back to an artist friend in America (using his typically idiosyncratic spelling and grammar):
The Exhibitions hear have drove men to pursue difirent departments of the art of painting … I have Imbark’d in Historical painting. by which means I have rimoved that long received Opinion that. That was a department in the art that never would be incourage in this Kingdom. But [illegible] I have been so fare Successfull in it that I find my pictures sell for a prise that no liveing Artist ever received before’.3
After the exhibition of 1770, a contemporary commentator naming this picture counted West among the ‘several English artists’ who had ‘in our last and other late exhibitions … made it evident, that some of the principal merits of historical painting (in particular design and composition) may be comprised in the space of a cabinet picture’.4 The serious subject matter (taken from ancient history), moral content (turning on themes of loyalty and rebellion), and the composition and pictorial style of this picture, derived very directly from the example of Nicolas Poussin and emphasising narrative clarity and compositional order, conformed to the highest expectations of traditional academic art theory, as formulated in seventeenth–century France and Italy. But while West’s immediate model, the Scottish painter Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798), produced such scenes on a large scale with figures approaching life-size (for example, his Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus 1765–72; T03365), the American painter has rendered the composition on a Poussinesque scale, with figures about the third of life-size. The connoisseur Horace Walpole, writing in response to the annual art exhibitions of 1770 and therefore probably in reference specifically to this painting, referred to, ‘One West, who paints history in the taste of Poussin, gets £300 for a piece not too large to hang over a chimney’ while also noting, ‘He has merit, but is hard and heavy, and far unworthy of such prices’.5
Arguably, the sentiment of the picture offers a similar concession to modern day values. The art historian David Solkin has identified this work as among several produced by West in the 1760s which foreground female characters and the role they might play in softening masculine virtues, in line with the shifting gender values of the era. So, in this picture, ‘the pleading mother … is cast in the role of a beautiful agent who mollifies the hard brutality of a dominant male, as she solicits her royal father’s mercy on behalf of her traitor husband’.6 The narrative could function both in relation to the most severe, conventionally masculine values, as well as this new culture of sensibility: while the subject of Cleombrotus was evoked by the high–minded political writer Edward Montagu in his discussion of the severe political virtues demanded of the right-thinking statesman in 1769, it could at the same time be evoked in the context of a literary magazine as offering moral lessons for ordinary domestic life, and even the sorts of emotional pleasure associated with the culture of sentiment rather than of the harsh tales of Spartan antiquity. In the Literary Register (1769), as quoted above, the story of Cleombrotus was given as an ‘Example’ to illustrate ‘Conjugal Affection’: ‘A good wife makes the cares of the world sit easy, and adds a sweetness to its pleasure’.
The very early history of the painting is uncertain. It was in the collection of the wealthy wholesale grocer Samuel Smith (1727–1798) by 1791, according to a catalogue reference to a drawing after the original painting on show at the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in that year, and the painting itself was seen by the diarist and Royal Academician Joseph Farington during a visit to Smith’s son, the dissenting MP William Smith (1756–1835) in 1797.7 Not knowing of the record of the painting’s location in 1791, the authors of the modern catalogue raisonné of West’s work Helmut Von Erffa and Allen Staley pointed out that William Smith was only a child when the painting was originally exhibited and could not therefore have acquired it directly from the artist.8 In light of this apparent discrepancy, the same authors refer to a single early nineteenth-century source, which relates that the painting was bought by William Lock (or Locke) of Norbury (1732–1810), and this leads them to suggest that he was the original purchaser.9 This claim is otherwise unsubstantiated, although there is evidence suggesting that other works by West passed from Lock to Smith and the reference made by Walpole to West selling ‘history in the taste of Poussin’ for £300 in 1770 might be interpreted as reporting the sale of this particular work, although whether this was to Lock or to Samuel Smith is not currently known.10 The mezzotint reproduction of the painting by Charles Howard Hodges (1764–1837) published by John and Josiah Boydell in 1789 does not mention in the inscription the owner of the original painting.
The picture remained with Smith until 1819 when it appeared for sale from his collection at Christie’s, listed as ‘An Historical Subject from the History of Cleombrotus and Chelonis, designed in correct and classical taste’. It was bought by John Bartie for the low price of £31.10. The picture subsequently passed to the architect William Wilkins (1778–1839). He gave it in 1827 to the British Museum, at a time when plans were in development for a new building to house the National Gallery. Given Wilkins’s profession, he would have known and taken an interest in these proposals (and in 1832 was, indeed, appointed the architect of a newly combined National Gallery and Royal Academy in Trafalgar Square, the building we know today). The direction of Wilkins’s gift was, perhaps, as his modern biographer has proposed, to test ‘the seriousness of the alternate proposal to install the National Gallery in the British Museum’.11 In the event, it was transferred immediately to the National Gallery, and was noted as being on display there in a guidebook with the published date of 1826.12 Although displayed at the National Gallery since its acceptance as a gift to the nation, the picture was among the large group of pictures (as many as seventy-two) that continued to be viewed by the Trustees of the British Museum as their property even after a parliamentary act of 1856 granted the Gallery greater independence. The removal of the painting to South Kensington in 1859, for instance, had to be reported to the British Museum and approved by their Trustees.13 In 1868 the Trustees of the British Museum finally relinquished their claim on this and the other National Gallery pictures transferred from their collection. The picture was transferred, once again, to the Tate Gallery in 1929, by which time it appears to be already on loan to the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, where it remained until at least 1947.14
The painting featured prominently in the displays at the National Gallery in the nineteenth century and often attracted published commentary, usually in relation to the other three paintings by West then in the national collection. While there was much admiration for the picture, there were also reservations about the subject matter and the restrained style, even compared to the other works on show by the same artist. Several commentators classed it with Pylades and Orestes (N00126) as an early work in a ‘cold’ style, while preferring, if only marginally, the latter work. In one of the earliest guidebooks to the Gallery, the connoisseur and amateur artist William Young Ottley complained that as ‘the most interesting feature in the story’ involved a speech which ‘could not be painted’ the painter ‘has not evinced his usual discrimination in the choice of his subject’.15 An art journalist in 1834 assessing West’s several paintings at the National Gallery heaped praise on the Christ Healing the Sick, remarking that, ‘The other pictures in the Gallery, consisting of ‘The Last Supper,’ ‘Cleombrotus,’ and ‘Pylades and Orestes,’ do not affect the mind in an equal degree, – from the less interesting nature of the subjects, – although the latter picture contains much beauty of colouring and composition’.16 The German art tourist Passavant called it ‘cold and stiff in conception, as in colour’17 and Anna Jameson proclaimed it was in the artist’s ‘best style’ but ‘flat and tame in point of colour and general effect, and inferior to the Pylades and Orestes’.18 Another German art chronicler, Gustav Friedrich Waagan, was complimentary about the ‘noble and simple’ qualities of West’s early works, but also complained of this picture that the ‘the tone is cooler, the composition less decided’ than that of Pylades and Orestes.19 The artist George Foggo, writing in 1845, was more forthright:
A poor specimen of Mr West’s talent for composition, and very tame of execution. Cleombrotus is too old and his wife is too large and much lessb interesting than would be expected: the drawing and colour are also not at all above mediocrity.20
Modern art historians have perhaps been more attentive to the picture than the critics of the nineteenth century, even to the relative neglect of the once much-favoured Christ Healing the Sick (written off after damage incurred in the flood of the Tate’s basement in 1928). It has been evoked repeatedly as an exemplar of the so-called neoclassical style in painting, even anticipating the more celebrated innovations of the French artists Jaques-Louis David. It received an honourable mention in the pioneering study of the revival of history painting in France at the end of the eighteenth century by Jean Locquin (1912).21 The art historian Robert Rosenblum, taking a wider European perspective in his influential study Transformations in Late Eighteenth–Century Art (1967), positioned West’s Leonidas in relation to the politicised classicism of David and the sentimental painting of Jean Baptiste Greuze: ‘prophecying the emotional cleavage of families so conspicuous in David’s work, the moral virility of the father, at the left, is contrasted to the Greuzian sorrow, at the right, of his daughter, who, nevertheless, was virtuously to follow her husband into banishment.’22
Much recent art historical commentary has followed this positioning of the picture as the model of Neoclassicism’s ‘severely disciplined world of measured spaces, where retribution is tempered with moral restraint’.23 It has, accordingly, featured in published introductions to the Tate Gallery collection as a means of representing the grand style of history painting in the eighteenth century, and in 2010–11 it was one of a handful of British paintings included in the major exhibition L'Antiquité rêvée organised by the Musée du Louvre, Paris.24 Outside of the field of art history, the painting has been put to use as an exemplary case of ‘the neo-classic rendering of the exemplum virtutis’ with parallels in literary culture of the period.25
The original exhibited title of Leonidas Ordering into Banishment Cleombrotus is here restored to the painting. This was the title originally chosen by West and, arguably, reflects the narrative and pictorial weight given by the artist to the figure of Leonidas. It was also the title used in early nineteenth-century lists of West’s work, in reference both to the finished painting to the lost oil sketch on paper for the composition. It has, though, previously been catalogued at the Tate under the title of ‘Cleombrotus Ordered into Banishment by Leonidas II, King of Sparta’, while von Erffa and Staley list it as ‘Leonidas and Cleombrotus’, under which title the painting had been exhibited for a second time, in 1770. The mezzotint published in 1789 by Josiah Boydell was titled simply ‘Leonidas’, while it was engraved in the mid-nineteenth century by Thomas Garner (1789–1868) with the inscribed title ‘The banishment of Cleombrothus’. Other slight variations on these several titles have appeared in the literature.
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