Agrippina and Her Children Mourning Over the Ashes of Germanicus
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 practice.

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).