As it is Holy Week I thought it would be appropriate to write a little about Jane Austen related religious topics this week, and today I’d like to consider two religious paintings by Benjamin West which Jane Austen admired.
Jane Austen was a quietly devout Anglican. The daughter of a clergyman, George Austen, she came from a clerical family and two of her bothers were ordained as Anglican ministers-James and Henry. In addition, her maternal grandfather and great-uncle were both Anglican ministers,as were her godfather, an uncle and four of her cousins.
Her attitude to her faith was rarely expressed directly by her either in her novels or in her letters. Some of her prayers still exist and reveal her faith to have been sincere and deeply held. Her famous comment about the Evangelical wing of the Anglican Church, made to her niece Fanny Knight who was considering marriage to a religiously serious man and wondering if this was the right thing to do,was probably influenced by her admiration for the work of the the Evangelical Abolitionists,than anything else, in my view:
As there being any objection from his Goodness, from the danger of his becoming even Evangelical, I cannot admit that. I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals and am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling must be happiest and safest.
(See Letter to Fanny Knight dated 18th November 1814)
It is apparent that she very much disapproved of the religious attitude of certain Evangelicals, most noticeably, her cousin, Edward Cooper, shown below,
a noted Evangelical preacher and publisher of sermons. Below is the frontispiece of one of his collections of sermons, published in 1825:
Writing to her sister, Cassandra after the death of their sister-in-law, Elizabeth, Edward Knight’s wife who had died after giving birth to her last child, Jane Austen clearly disapproved of Edward Cooper’s habit of writing letters to the newly bereaved that, while they were consistent with his beliefs, could cause distress:
I have written to Edward Cooper, and hope he will not send one of his letters of cruel comfort to my poor brother
(See letter to Cassandra Austen, dated 15th October, 1808)
In a letter to Martha Lloyd written from Henry Austen’s home in Hans Place, London on the 2nd September 1814 we have some of her most interesting comments on religion, made on seeing some of the religious works of the American born artist, Benjamin West:
I have seen West’s famous painting and prefer it to anything of the kind I ever saw before. I do not know that it is reckoned superior to his “Healing in the Temple” but it has gratified me much more and indeed is the first representation of our Saviour which ever at all contented me. His Rejection by the elders is the subject. I want to have You and Cassandra see it.
So that you can fully participate in appreciating Jane Austen’s opinions of them, I have traced copies of these painting for you and reproduce them here. Below is a black and white reproduction of Christ Rejected, which was Jane Austen’s favourite:
And below is Christ Healing the Sick, which is the other painting by West that Jane Austen mentioned in her letter to Martha Lloyd.
Christ Healing the Sick was a very large work by West and it was completed in 1811. It’s history is interesting, for it was created at the request of the officers of the Pennsylvania Hospital:
…the officers of the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia …wrote to him in 1800 soliciting the gift of a painting. West consented to their request, and in 1801 he exhibited a sketch of ‘Christ Healing the Sick’ at the Royal Academy identifying it in the catalogue as for a large picture to be painted for the hospital. Despite this prompt and positive response , it took him a full decade to produce the large painting, doubtlessly because a work for which he did not expect to be paid had a low priority among his commitments. Ironically, however, when he finally completed it in 1811, he was paid and paid well, accepting an offer of 3,000 guineas for the picture from the directors of the British Institution. This meant that the Pennsylvanians still did not receive the painting they and asked for in 1800, but West did promise to paint a second version, and he eventually did complete a slightly larger and modified replica in 1815. After two more years of delay, it went off to Philadelphia in August 1817.
(See: The Paintings of Benjamin West by Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, page 142)
Christ Rejected (by the Elders in the Temple) was begun in 1801 and Benjamin West exhibited a sketch of the picture in that year. He didn’t finish the painting until 1811. Both paintings were exhibited by West in London and casued quite the sensation. It is clear that Jane Austen saw them both on her visits to her brother, Henry Austen from the contents of her letter to Martha Lloyd. As Helmut von Etrffa and Allen Staley write:
The sum of 3,000 guineas that West received in 1811( for Christ Healing the Sick-jfw) was not only more than he had previously received for any other single work, but at the time the highest price known ever to have been paid to any artist for any work and, coming from a public institution, which intended the purchase to be the commencement of a national gallery, it provided concrete recognition of West’s stature in the profession. The price which was not kept secret, guaranteed the painting’s public success when it went on view in April 1811 at the British Institution, which made a profit on its investments from paid admissions and it inevitably led the artist to think of appropriate sequels. By July 1811 he had prepared an oil sketch for the even larger ‘Christ Rejected’ which he completed three years later, to be followed in its turn after three more years by Death on the Pale Horse, his last major work. These two painting he did not sell, although he was reported to have declined staggering offers for Christ Rejected and he exhibited them himself in special exhibitions at 125 Pall Mall a former home of the Royal Academy.(as above page 142)
Jane Austen therefore must have seen Christ Healing the Sick at the British Institution,and then three years later would have gone to Mr West’s Rooms to see Christ Rejected. Both these exhibition rooms were in Pall Mall, and my copy of The Picture of London for 1818
has this to say about The Gallery of the British Intuition:
This Institution was established in 1805 under the patronage of his Majesty for the encouragement and reward of the talents of British Artists and exhibits during half the year a collection of the works of living artists for sale; and during the other half year, it is furnished with pictures painted by the most celebrated masters for the study of the academic and others in painting.
Mr West’s Rooms are described as follows:
Mr West’s Pictures at the East end of Pall Mall
Mr President West here exhibits the chefs d’oeuvres of modern art in his superior pictures of Christ rejected by the Jews and another of Death on the Pale Horse of inferior though of great merit. It is well known by his fine sketch which has been before the pubic some years in the original rooms of the academy…The rooms are also hung with some sketches and minor pictures of this unrivalled painter. The admission is one shilling.
Benjamin West, shown below in a magnificent portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence,
was, of course, the first American born artist to achieve international fame and stature. He was born in the then British colony of Pennsylvania in 1738. He rose to become Historical Painter to King George III and succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds to serve as second president of the Royal Academy in 1792. During his lifetime his reputation was almost unrivalled. He was the most prominent artist in the English-speaking world untill his death in 1820 at the great age of 81 years. He even achieved fame in France:
…the French artists held Mr West in the highest esteem of an Artist and ..when David spoke of him..he was quite moved to tears. For other British artists they have no applause.
(See: The Paintings of Benjamin West by Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, page 1)
I love the fact that this tiny paragraph in her letter reveals Jane Austen to have been not only someone capable of sensible art criticism,but someone who was bang up to date with the latest developments in the art world. The image of her as a domestically minded spinster,content to stay at home occasionally writing the odd novel is far,far from the truth, to my mind. She was terribly interested in the latest developments in the world, be it the latest fashions, poems or the latest artworks. I also find it vastly interesting that this is the image of Christ that most appealed to her.