Henry Benbridge


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Painter. Chiefly a portraitist, the Philadelphia native received some instruction in 1758 from John Wollaston. While still a teenager, his encouraging mother and stepfather allowed him to decorate the interior of their house with figural compositions derived from prints of Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Obviously ambitious for his art, in 1765 he arrived in Italy. In Rome he absorbed the same grand manner influences that had recently formed Benjamin West, whose wife was a relative. Benbridge also evidently admired the paintings of Anton Raffael Mengs, as well as those of Pompeo Batoni, with whom he may have studied. Mingling with the Anglo-American community, he became acquainted with writer James Boswell, who commissioned a portrait of Corsican patriot Pascal Paoli (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1768). Benbridge traveled to Corsica to execute the likeness, which he sent to London for exhibition before he arrived late in 1769. The Paoli portrait brought him attention (especially since Paoli himself had in the same year fled to London to escape a French invasion), and he worked quite successfully there for about half a year. During this time he became well acquainted with West and absorbed aspects of his style. Benbridge returned to Philadelphia before settling in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1772. In 1780, during the Revolutionary War, he was taken prisoner by the British and exiled to St. Augustine, Florida. Subsequently he spent about a year in Philadelphia before returning in 1784 to Charleston. Following his departure from that city in 1790 or not long after, he lived for some time in Norfolk, Virginia, and may also have resided more briefly in Baltimore. Benbridge apparently painted little during later years, probably because of poor health. He presumably died in Philadelphia, where he was buried. Benbridge's best portraits evidence technical fluency and a clear, smooth, and gracious style. He ranked among the best miniaturists of his day, and following the British vogue for so-called conversation pieces, he often painted small-scale, full-length portraits of individuals or family groups. Among these, his appealing Enoch Edwards Family (Philadelphia Museum, probably 1783) includes his own self-portrait seated at left before a casual grouping of his half sister, her husband, and the husband's sister. The figures gather at the edge of a wood, and the composition opens out to the right in a bucolic, feathery landscape. As was often the case, particularly after the 1770s, a slight awkwardness betrays Benbridge's erratic command of anatomy and figural proportion. At the same time, the work displays his reputed facility in rendering luxurious fabrics, his capacity to picture fine detail within a small format, and, with the three standing figures clustered about a gigantic urn on a pedestal, the classical inclinations he had honed in Rome. In Philadelphia, before his 1772 departure for Charleston, Benbridge married Esther (or Letitia, nicknamed Hetty) Sage (d. 1777), a miniature painter trained by Charles Willson Peale. She joined him in Charleston in 1773. Few works have been attributed to her hand.

Subjects: Art.

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