Agrippina and Her Children Mourning Over the Ashes of Germanicus
by Benjamin West

From Docent Spotlight by Phyllis LeTellier, November 27, 2001


An earlier painting by West - Agrippina Landing at Brundisium - was done for King George III in 1768 to complement his history paintings in Windsor Castle. This painting is now in the Yale University of Art Gallery.
Our Agrippina and Her Children Mourning Over the Ashes of Germanicus continues the Agrippina theme and is a fine example of West's 'Stately Mode Period' using a monumental scale to elevate the subject matter from being only sad and sentimental to something of a dramatic moral statement:
    A good, brave, and stoic wife's fidelity and grief over her husband's death
    The husband, a brave and patriotic fallen warrior and hero
    A brave and noble mother in a loving and protective position with her children
o    A pose similar to a Madonna Doloroso figure (Born out by West's early sketches)
The smiling child on her lap is her son Gaius who would later become the Emperor known as Caligula.
    Please note the characteristics of West's style learned in Italy:
    Modulated chiaroscuro
    Sharp delineation
    Smooth surface
    'Titian' like use of color


    Resemblance to the Madonna and Child format
o    Smiling child in position of Christ Child in Medici Madonna painting in Gallery 5
    Notice the gold chain and medallion the child (Gaius) is holding
o    Does this foretell his future role as a Roman Emperor?
    In the lower right corner of the painting we see symbolic items belonging to Germanicus - the fallen hero - things he might have used if his life had not been cut short:
o    The Imperial Roman Eagle crested spear
o    A laurel leaf wreath
o    A crown
    In the upper left is a halberd - An axe-blade mounted on a staff
o    A symbol of St. Jude - the patron of 'lost causes'
    What is the moral message in this painting?


    The story of Agrippina is taken from the annals of Tacitus. It tells of the death of Germanicus, Roman general, grandson of Marc Anthony, and nephew and adopted son of the Emperor Tiberius who may have instigated his death by poisoning. Germanicus, a handsome and popular military hero was a favorite of those in Rome who wanted to restore the Republic - so perhaps he was a dangerous rival to Tiberius. Agrippina believed the Emperor was to blame for her husband's death and returned from Syria to Rome with the fallen general's ashes to confront Tiberius and demand justice. She also had ambitions for her son Nero (Not the fiddler while Rome burned) to succeed Tiberius as Emperor. Agrippina was also the daughter of the former Emperor Augustus. Lots of political ambition here! After several years and many more political and devious intrigues, Agrippina is exiled to a distant land where she and one of her children commit suicide.
    The story goes on -
    Agrippina's younger son, Gaius (The smiling boy in the painting) later known as Caligula ('Little Boot' from his association with the soldiers of his father's armies), follows Tiberius as the new Emperor after Tiberius's 'assisted' death. Even though the beginning of Caligula's rule is benevolent, he became mad and sadistic in his brutality. His rule came to an untimely end at the rather young age of 29 - assassinated by his personal guards. He is succeeded by Claudius who later marries Agrippina's daughter (Also named Agrippina), his niece. The second Agrippina has a son, Nero (The fiddler while Rome burns) from a previous marriage. This Agrippina was very ruthless and ambitious. She eventually poisoned Claudius with mushrooms and had her son Nero proclaimed Emperor. Nero, when enthroned, remarked that 'mushrooms must be the food of the gods, since by eating them, Claudius had become divine'. Nero later had his mother (Agrippina II) killed when she displeased him.

    Gazing on this lovely painting it hard to imagine the real life-story of Agrippina and her children. This dysfunctional family hardly seems the likely theme for moral neoclassicism.


    Neo-classicism was born out of rejection of the light-hearted frivolous Rococo and opulent Baroque periods or styles of art.
    Influenced by recent excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1750's)
    The movement began in Rome with Mengs and Winckleman (West studied with Mengs)
    Proponents wanted to recreate the order, clarity, reason, and spirit of Greek/Roman art, especially its simplicity of form - nostalgia for the lost Golden Age of Antiquity
    Neo-classicism had a moral as well as aesthetic importance
o    Restoration of ancient Roman values to civic life and government
o    Justice, honor, and patriotism
o    Stoicism
    The Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution also influenced this period in art.
    Benjamin West introduced neo-classicism to London two decades before Jacques David - the central figure of the movement; made his mark in Napoleon's Paris
    Some other artists of the period were Canova, Mengs, and Angelica Kaufman
    The styles varied in some aspects from severity in David's work to neo-romanticism in others.


    Born in Springfield, PA in 1738 (Near Philadelphia) - son of an innkeeper
    Began the study of art with William Williams in Philadelphia at the age of ten.
    Also studied the classics, the Bible, and ancient history with William Smith of the College of Philadelphia
    Formed most of his interest in historical painting at this time
    He was mostly self taught - very ambitious as an artist - influenced by European Masterworks he found in books of prints
    With the help of several wealthy Philadelphia patrons, he set sail for Italy in 1760 - first American artist to do so.
    In Italy, West was impressed by antique sculpture and 16th & 17th -century painters - Raphael, the Carracci, Reni, and Poussin. Worked hard to emulate Michelangelo's use of form and Titian's translucent colors - taught himself to use glazes and muted tints.
    Contemporary artist Anton Mengs became his mentor and encouraged West to follow a new eclectic theory on the study of Great Masters - Raphael's grace, Michelangelo's design, Correggiao's soft shadows, etc. Guercino's influence is noticeable in the Ringling painting of Agrippina. West's portraits were sometime mistaken for the work of Mengs.
    West enjoyed acclaim in Italy. He made important contacts in the art world and achieved the recognition of J. Reynolds and others in England.
    In 1763, West - with his very fashionable Italian training and background - immediately became a leader in the London art world because no other local artist could rival him in his chosen area of history painting. English art patrons commissioned their own artists for portraiture and landscape, but chose European masters for historical works. West achieved a breakthrough between 1765-1771 with many commissions for his multi-figured scenes from the Bible, mythology, and history. His work was noticed by King George III who shared West's interest in Neo-classicism and historical paintings. This began a long friendship and role as court painter to King George III.
    West was commissioned to furnish the staterooms of Windsor Castle with his history and Biblical paintings, Royal portraits, and later the design for stained glass windows in the St. George Chapel at Windsor.
    West's history paintings such as the famous 'Death of General Wolfe' and Bible studies - 'Christ Rejected by the Jews' - are considered some of his best work done for the King's apartment.
    When elected second president of the Royal Academy in 1792, he was offered a Knighthood - which he refused. Apparently he hoped for a better honor than a non-hereditary title!
    West's fame spread beyond England due to the widespread distribution in 1771 of engravings of his historical pictures - a wonderful advertisement of his ability.
    His fame bought many aspiring painters to his palatial London home to study with him. West was a kind and generous teacher.
    He was the first American artist to achieve an international reputation.
    His influence on American artists, as well as English, was very important. Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, John Singleton Copley were among the 18th century Americans who owed much to his teaching. The English landscape painter John Constable even acknowledged West's help in colors - quoted West in saying 'Always remember, sir, that light and shadow never stand still'. He always encouraged students to work outside and observe nature.

His historical importance perhaps outweighs the quality of his work that, despite his modern ideas in the 18th and 19th century, now seems somewhat pedestrian. To his credit, he bridged American and European art, and when he died, he was given a traditional state funeral at St Paul's Cathedral that was attended by thousand of admirers.