Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mrs John Penn, nee Allen (1746 - 1830) 1770s

Benjamin West PRA (1738-1820)

Portrait of Mrs John Penn, nee Allen (1746 - 1830), Benjamin West
Oil on canvas
18th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x 101.2 cm
Mrs Frederic Tudor, 36 Lime Street, Boston, U.S.A., by 1916 By descent to Mrs Marie Tudor Garland, 1923-1942 Her daughter, Hope Garland, Mrs Ingersoll, Grazing Fields, Buzzards Bay, Mass. Family collection, U.S.A., until 1994
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Forty-First Annual Report for the Year 1916, p. 114. H. von Erf fa and A. Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West, Yale 1986, pp.486-7, No.584 (illus.)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1916, and on extended loan there 1923-42
Last publicly recorded at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the early part of this century, the re-emergence of this, West's most ambitious and spectacular rendering of a female American sitter, is likely to be cause for re-assessment of his early work.1

It is probably the first portrait by an American-born artist of an American sitter that can be truly compared with the very best of contemporary European art, and reveals West on threshold of a celebrated career, having absorbed the rich heritage of Italian art and also the emerging school of Neo-Classicism in Rome.

Fittingly also it portrays a member of the family whose patronage made his international career possible. The youngest daughter of Chief Justice William Alien (1704-80) and Margaret Hamilton, Anne Alien was born into one of Pennsylvania's wealthiest and most politically influential families. The status of the Allen family was further enhanced when Anne married on 31 May 1766, John Penn (1729-95), a grandson of William Penn, the founder of the colony of Pennsylvania. Shortly after their marriage Thomas Penn, John''s uncle, wrote to Richard Peters, 17 July 1766,

"I have this day an account of my nephew's marriage from himself, and write to him by this opportunity to wish him joy. I think there is a good prospect of their being happy; she has good sense, great sweetness of temper and prudence, and I think he knows how to prize qualities so amiable in so agreeable a form."2

John Penn was appointed Deputy-Governor of Philadelphia in 1763 and then Lieutenant-Governor from 1773-6. He had the distinction of being the last colonial governor of Pennsylvania, thereby ending a family association that had been started by his grandfather, the Founder of the colony. He died in America in 1795. Von Erffa and Staley suggest that our portrait of Anne Allen, was with the portrait of her father amongst the first pictures that West painted after his arrival in England.3 They point out that the works which portrait of Anne Alien has closest affinities with are the Countess of Northampton and her daughter, which West painted in Venice in 1762 and the Angelica and Medoro, which he possibly began in Rome in 1763 and finished in time to be exhibited in London in the spring of 1764.
The portrait of Anne, Countess of Northampton, the wife of the English Ambassador and her daughter Lady Elizabeth Compton, was clearly inspired by Renaissance prototypes, in particular Raphael's Madonna delta Sedia and Madonna delta Granduca.4 As von Erffa and Staley point out, the relationship between foreground subject and background space echoes that of the Madonna and Child with St. Jerome by Correggio in Parma, which West had started to copy in the autumn of 1762.

The Raphaelesque inclined angle of the head, the compact triangular shape of the pose dominating the composition, are also features common to the portrait of Anne Alien. The Venetian colouring in the blues and pinks in her costume is further evidence of West's debt to his study of Italian art, as is the relationship between the foreground figure and the framed landscape background of sharply receding hills. The choice of Italian prototypes is particularly appropriate for a sitter whose father financed part of West's trip and commissioned copies of old masters to enable him to stay there.

With the benefit of an x-ray it is possible to see the way in which West made radical changes to the composition of the painting. At first Anne Allen's left arm was raised up towards her face and in her hand she holds a flower. There is no evidence in the first working of the inclusion of either the dog or the wide-brimmed hat which rests in her lap. The original composition is perhaps more affected and stylised, corresponding more closely to the works that West is known to have painted in Italy. The fact that in the x-ray there are two distinct workings on the picture may suggest that the painting was started in Italy in late 1762 or early 1763 and then finished in England.

Von Erffa and Staley also state that in both the portraits of Anne and William Allen, West demonstrates an awareness of the works of Gainsborough. This they say is reflected in the ambitious landscape background, the inclusion of the dog, and particularly the averted gaze of the subject. 5 Since the dog was included during the second treatment and the averted gaze was a result of the lowering of the sitter''s left arm, the changes that West made to the picture were perhaps occasioned by exposure to Gainsborough''s work, when he arrived in Bath.
Von Erffa and Staley point out that there is no documented contact between West and Anne Alien and suggest that the portrait may have painted from a miniature. Also, however, it cannot be discounted that Anne Alien visited or stayed with her father during the year that he was in England and at the same time as two of her brothers were also in the country. All four of the Alien family portraits by West have been dated to between 1760-4.

Within the landscape is a distinctly un-European colonial-stlye building and it is possible that this is a specific reference to the sitter's Pennsylvanian roots. It may well be intended to evoke Mount Airy, the country residence that William Alien built in Germantown outside Philadelphia. The exotic foliage and fauna around the sitter are similarly un-European in character, as is the rendering of Anne's features, in which can be detected the remnants of a colonial approach to portrayal with the distinctly rounded head-shape and the emphatic rendering of the eyes and lips. Indeed, the portrait''s strength derives from its fusion of these two traditions: in portraying of the daughter of his critically influential patron, he has brought to bear all his recently acquired knowledge of European art upon a colonial past, to produce a truly international work of art, that presages the work of Copley, and places West at the commencement of Euro-American painting. Until now it has only be known from a poor quality black and white photograph, which was take when the painting was on loan at Boston in 1923.

1.Howard M.Jenkins, The Family of William Penn, Pennsylvania, 1899, p.208.
2.H. von Erffa and A.Stanley, The Paintings of Benjamin West, Yale 1986, p. 25. Ibid, No.676, p.538-40. Ibid, p.487.
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