Benjamin West

The Golden Age


Not on display

Benjamin West 1738–1820
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 654 × 765 mm
frame: 891 × 1022 × 100 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery and the Art Fund 1967

Display caption

Although the young mother seems to be modelled on the artist's wife, this is not a West family portrait, but an allegorical scene. The Golden Age of the title, given in an engraving of the picture published in 1778, is the state of Infancy. The peacefully sleeping child knows nothing of the worries and poverty of its mother, indicated by the ragged hem of her dress and bare feet, or of the hard labour of the father, seen in the distance ploughing with a team of oxen. Neither is it aware of the cares and feebleness of old age, represented by the grandparents trying to catch the warmth of the sun in the doorway.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Benjamin West 1738–1820

T00945 The Golden Age 1776

Inscribed ‘B. West 1776’ b.r.
Canvas, 25¾ x 30¿ (65.5 x 76.5).
Purchased from the Leger Gallery with the assistance of the Friends of the Tate Gallery and the National Art-Collections Fund 1967.
Coll: the artist; his son, Raphael West, sold George Robins, 25 May 1829 (153), bt. Bohn;...; Sir John Neeld Bart, by 1878, thence by descent to L W Neeld, sold Christie’s, 13 July 1945 (170), bt. Leger Gallery from whom bt. by James Green, who sold it in February 1946 to Samuel Eckman Jr, sold Sotheby’s, 11 October 1967 (46), bt. Leger Gallery.
Exh: West’s Gallery, Newman Street, 1821 (94); R. A., Old Masters, 1878 (78).
Engr: by Facius, published 1 January 1778 by John Boydell.
Repr: National Art-Collections Fund 64th Annual Report 1967, 1968, on cover.

At an early date the canvas was transferred to a stretcher which was too small to include the extremities of the painted oval that contains the composition. The stretcher was therefore made up with small curved pieces of wood in the centre of the top, bottom, and right-hand sides. The measurements given above include these additions, which vary between ¿ and ½ inch in width. Even so, a fraction of the monochrome area surrounding the oval had to be folded over the edge of the stretcher. The edges of the canvas bear incised marks made by the engraver when squaring up the design.

The Golden Age depicts three generations of an Old Testament family in an interior: a mother and sleeping child in the foreground, the grandparents at a doorway behind, and, in the landscape which is glimpsed through the doorway, the husband ploughing with oxen. When exhibited in 1878, the picture bore the sub-title ‘Portrait of Mrs West’. There is, in fact, a similarity between the central figure in T00945 and the portrait of Mrs West in The Artist’s Family of 1770 in the collection Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon (repr. Souvenir, Painting in England 1700–1850, R. A. winter 1964–5, p. 67).

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1967–1968, London 1968.


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