Agrippina and Her Children Mourning Over the Ashes of
by Benjamin West -1773
By Sandra Musicante. April 10, 2000
Here is a painting of a woman surrounded by three boys. She is holding an
urn inscribed Ossa Germanici C. Aug. One boy's hand rests on her shoulder. Two
boys are playing in the foreground. One is smiling. They are dressed in Roman attire. On
the floor is a laurel wreath, eagle, crown and banner, symbols of Rome. In the background
there are 4 people. There is very little landscape, just a column, drape and some clouds.
The light in this painting is general, falling on Agrippina, the smiling boy and the
mourners on the left.
Germanicus, a popular Roman General while on foreign campaign was poisoned on the orders
of his uncle, the Emperor Tiberius, who felt threatened by his popularity. Tiberius later
murdered Agrippina and 2 of her sons. Her surviving son Gaius (here depicted as the
smiling child) later became the cruel Emperor Caligula.
Benjamin West was one of the first American artists to win a wide reputation in Europe. He
was born Oct. 10, 1738 in Springfield (now Swathmore), Pennsylvania to a Quaker family,
one of 10 children. His father was an innkeeper. He was very talented and was educated
through the support of generous benefactors. He had a brief career painting portraits in
New York and Philadelphia, but with the help of his patrons he was given free passage to
Italy to continue his training - and advanced 300 lbs. to paint copies of Old Masters for
them. While in Italy he studied with Anton Raphael Mengs at the Capitoline Academy. He was
made a member of academies at Bologna, Florence and Parma.. In 1763 West went to England
and remained there for the rest of his life. He was made History Painter to King George
the III and helped to found the Royal Academy, which he later served as president for
twenty-eight years. Through the Academies there were definite rules for painting in the
neo-classical style. The aim of the Academy was to supply the right instruction. The
student's natural ability and artistry will lead him to his own expression. Art gave
insight into the ideal realm of perfect goodness, truth and beauty and it afforded moral
instruction. The antique tradition was the be all and end all of perfect beauty. Only by
imitation could nature be elevated to an ideal state. Adapting traditional forms to new
purposes was a favorable attitude. This imitation was fundamental to West's artistic
This painting is described as West's Stately Mode. The figures appear solid, reserved in
action and not too expressive in the face. Influence of the 15th century Carrachi school
of painting. The theme of mourning for the lost national benefactor - calm sorrowful
attitudes of the figures fulfill the requirements of sedate grandeur seen in ancient
sculpture. The colors range from brilliant hues to dull colors with brown shades
predominant. As West developed to muted and more somber colors he still maintained rich
color harmonies. Influenced by the Venetian and Bolognese. He used monumental scale to
elevate the subject from a sentimental episode to a moral statement. Her somber attitude
was seen as a noble example of the Enlightenment. There are strong religious overtones
here. A preliminary drawing of 1771 treats the subject as a variation on the Virgin and
Child with the Infant St. John. This arrangement of the Madonna was a favorite of Raphael.
But West changed his mind and, as you can see, painted the two playful boys instead. I
know I'm not supposed to do this, but in my opinion I guess he thought it wouldn't be too
wise to have Gaius Caligula representing the Christ Child.
Neo-classicism wasn't the name given to this style of painting until the 19th century. In
the 18th century it was looked upon as the "true style" and referred to as a
"revival of the arts" or a risorgimento of the arts, conceiving it as a new
Renaissance, a restating of timeless truths. It was a statement against the Rococo and
Baroque styles and sought to establish new rules with Universality as one of its prime
aims. The neo-classical artist wanted to appeal to all men of all times, not to the
individual of his time.
Benjamin West painted this oil on canvas for A. Vesey of Ireland in 1773. It was shown
that year at the Royal Academy; a mezzotint by Valentine Green was published in 1774.
Benjamin West was one of the first artists to realize the commercial and publicity value
of mechanical reproduction. These engravings of his painting sold by the 10's of thousands
in Europe and America. This picture is related in subject to an earlier work, which now
hangs in the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven. (Agrippina Landing at Brundisium
with the Ashes of Germanicus).