Art, I will admit, has never been one of my strongest subjects. If you dropped me onto the steps of the famous Philadelphia Museum of Art I probably could more accurately reenact the famous scene from Rocky, in which Sylvester Stallone charges up the museum’s famed steps, before I could tell you just one famous piece that hangs within its walls. However, I try to maintain a heath application for the artistic world despite my “ignorance”. That being said, I was amazed to see Pennsylvania (particularly York County) getting national recognition for one of its young artists. Maryland-born and Dover, Pennsylvania-based artist Abdi Farah earned national fame last week for winning Season #1 of Bravo’s new reality / competition show Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. Along with his new title and fame, Farah will receive $100,000 from Bravo and a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. While Farah is now considering a permanent move to New York City, the town in York County where his journey began will always hold a special place in his heart. “For me, Dover kind of represents this foreign world. It causes me to notice things a lot more,” Farah said in a published interview. (To see more on Bravo’s new reality show and more on Abdi Farah, click here)
Congratulations to Farah and the best of luck in his future endeavors. The artistic world is not one that is easy to break into, so any time I hear about a local person making his or her mark nationally, it’s always gives me a sense of satisfaction. Farah’s win on Bravo also got me wonder what other kinds of artistic wonders the mid-state had to offer. Pennsylvania has always been well known as a haven for folk art, but not as well know for internationally acclaimed artists. One name, however, that did jump out to me is a Pennsylvanian that is considered one of the greatest artists of the late-18th Century, but ended up spurning his homeland for aspirations of greater wealth and fame.
Born in 1738 to an innkeeper family in Springfield, Pennsylvania (now Swarthmore, Delaware County), Benjamin West is well known throughout the world for his depictions of historical scenes from colonial America. As a young boy, West received most of his early training from local Native American artists and was considered a kind of child protégée since he never had formal art training. While working as a portrait painter in Lancaster, PA he caught the eye of Dr. William Smith, the provost of the College of Philadelphia, who agreed to become West’s patron. West then moved to the City of Brotherly Love and with Smith’s money, educational clout, and high social status, was able to make important connections and grow as an artists, including the ability to travel to Italy for study and working under the guidance of popular English artist John Wollaston. West also became friends with prominent Pennsylvania political figures like Philadelphia mayor William Allen (reputed to be the wealthiest man in Philadelphia) and Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin, whom West asked to be the godfather of his second son, Benjamin (named, of course, in Franklin’s honor).
In 1763, West moved to London (the artistic hug of the British Empire at the time), where he met and painted for King George III. Impressed with West’s work, the King appointed him as his court’s historical painter in 1773 at an annual fee of £1,000 – a very large sum for the time. Though snubbed at first by more established European artists, West soon gained the respect of Sir Joshua Reynolds, a famous portrait painter to England’s rich and powerful. In 1768, the two opened the Royal Academy of Art together, considered today to be one of the primer art schools in the world. As an occational guest teacher and president of the institution, West also indulged his love of teaching at the Royal Academy, taking several prominent American painters under his wing like American painter and founder of the Peale Museum Charles Wilson Peale, famed portrait painter Gilbert Stuart (his unfinished 1796 painting of George Washington is still the most famous likeness of our first president – check out the $1 bill), and a young artist-turned-inventor from Lancaster, PA named Robert Fulton. (see “Taking Ideas to Their Fullest Potential”)
Despite or perhaps because of his lowly origins in America, West worked extremely hard at hiding his background for others in Europe and developed the personality of a spoiled, high-life aristocrat. His arrogance and love of money in his later years were almost as large as his talent. He once turned down a knighthood from King George III because he thought he deserved a hereditary title, one the King was not willing to grant. Commissioned in 1800 by the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia to create a large canvas of “Christ Healing the Sick,” he sold it instead to the British Institution, forerunner of the National Gallery, for 3000 guineas, reputedly the largest sum ever paid to an artist for a single work. West’s ego also made him many enemies, who mocked his later works, eventually costing him his lucrative position in the King’s court.
It will be interesting to see in the future if Abdi Farah and Bravo’s new reality show will take off as did past triumphs like Top Chef and Project Runway. Either way, Farah has a long and storied legacy of Pennsylvania artists to live up to. Whether he will or not, is yet to be seen.
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