Wednesday, October 30, 2013

William Edward West (b. 10 Dec 1788; d. 2 Nov 1857)

William Edward West (b. 10 Dec 1788;  d. 2 Nov 1857)
Photograph of self-portrait, about 1820:
[Click on image to enlarge it]

Compiled by Joy Ikelman, 2013. Disclaimers apply.

William Edward West, noted American painter, is descended from John West (d. 1744) of Stafford County, Virginia, and therefore is a part of Family Group #5:

John West (d. 1744) m. Dorothy ________
            Edward West (b. ca. 1730s; d. ca. 1791) m. Elizabeth Mills
                        Edward West (b.1757;  d. 23 Aug 1827) m. Sarah Brown (b. 1756; d. 7 Feb 1824)
                                    William Edward West (b. 10 Dec 1788; d. 2 Nov 1857)

William was born in Lexington, Kentucky. His father, Edward “Ned” West Jr., was a gifted silversmith and inventor.  William did not marry, and had no (known) children. This page briefly explores his career and points to examples of his work on-line.


The Young Artist. William West’s talent was encouraged at an early age. He and his brother John were students of artist George Beck, who had established a boys’ school in Lexington. [1] Dr. Samuel Brown (his father’s friend) assisted West in becoming a student of Thomas Sully of Philadelphia. [2] From 1809 (age 21) through 1817, West kept a studio in Philadelphia, and worked with the famous American portraitist. [3]

After leaving Philadelphia, West went to the Mississippi Valley – including Natchez and New Orleans – creating portraits in the homes of patrons. “The visit to Natchez was a homecoming for William Edward West. His life had long been intertwined with those of families in the Mississippi Territory. As a boy he had visited ‘near Natchez in the home of Edward Turner, a connection by marriage.’” [4, an extended notation]

Working in Europe. In 1822, Dr. Brown made it possible for West to study abroad at the Academy in Florence, Italy. West wrote to his father, “How happy I would be to see anyone from Kentucky. Give my best respects to Dr. Brown . . .” [5] By the summer of 1822, West was at Lord Byron’s estate, painting Byron’s portrait. He is often cited in art books for his portrait of Lord Byron, although other works are more exceptional. Part of West’s account of this sitting and other incidents are included in art historian Estill Curtis Pennington’s writings. [6]

After 1824, he moved to Paris, and met author Washington Irving, who became his friend. West eventually did illustrations for Irving’s stories. [7] In 1825, West moved to London and mingled with the American expatriate community. [8] Always congenial and charming, he became known for telling stories of the South. He was called “Kentucky West.” [9] From 1826 to 1837, he exhibited at the Royal Academy, and at other London exhibitions. [10] He had a prosperous career, and was introduced to English nobility.

West Returns to America. In 1837. He returned to America in poor health, and financially wrecked by poor investments. He moved to Baltimore and regained his financial success. He wrote, “Before one year passes over my head, I shall have paid every cent I owe and have a considerable surplus in the bargain.” [11] In 1840 West moved to New York City. He is found in City directories from 1840 to 1850, and 1852. [12]

In 1855, he settled in Nashville at the home of his sister, Jane West Woods. “He was soon at work in his indefatigable fashion, and is still remembered as he daily walked to his studio, which soon became a popular place.” [13] He died in 1857 at the age of 67. He is buried in the Nashville City Cemetery. [14] 

The Art of William Edward West. Pennington wrote, “The career of William Edward West was like a bright ribbon drawn through the fabric of early Kentucky portraiture.” [15] He clearly influenced other artists that became more famous than himself. Patti Carr Black, Mississippi historian, describes his work based on a portrait of Natchez resident Catherine Bingaman. The portrait displays “all of the characteristics of West’s work: elongation of form, producing an elegant and aristocratic bearing, large, liquid eyes in an expressive face, soft colors, loose brush-strokes, and vague backgrounds that were neo-classical in feeling.” [16]

Several of West’s paintings are on-line; a few are linked below. Some of his letters and other documents are at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. [17]

Some of William Edward West’s Portraits

Robert E. Lee:

Henry Lee, father to Robert E:

Elizabeth Steuart Calvert:

Three paintings by West from the BBC Trust; the third is George Gordon, Lord Byron:

Stephen Minor (1809), painted during West’s early career in Philadelphia at age 21; scroll down for painting detail:

Sarah Carter Gaut (1855), painted near West’s end of life, age 67:

Photograph of self-portrait, about 1820:


1. Black, Patti Carr, 1998: Art in Mississippi, 1720-1980. University Press of Mississippi, p. 45.

2. Dunn, N.P., 1907: “An Artist of the Past; William Edward West and His Friends at Home and Abroad,” Putnam’s Monthly, Volume 2, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, p. 658.

3. Pennington, Estill Curtis, 2011: Lessons in Likeness: Portrait Painters in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, 1802-1920. Featuring works from The Filson Historical Society. The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, p. 213.

4. Black, p. 45. In her footnotes, Black attributes the genealogical note to an article in the Natchez Tri-Weekly New-Era, 14 Mar 1818. Her comments continue, “The relative was probably Turner’s wife, Mary West, daughter of Cato West of Jefferson County. She married Turner in 1802 . . .” (his first wife). Cato West was the grandson of William West, who was born about 1708 in what was then Stafford County. Cato West was mentioned in William West’s Will, which was written in 1769 in Loudoun County (Will Book A, p. 226-229). Also mentioned in William West’s Will was Ann West, his daughter who married Craven Peyton. Here is another West connection – this one by a land deed. Ann West Peyton’s brother-in-law was Colonel Henry Peyton, who bought land from James West (son of John West FG#5) in 1779. (Prince William County Deed Book U, p. 33-34). It is still unknown if William Edward West, the artist, is related (by DNA) to William West (b. ca. 1708, d. 1769).

5. Dunn, p. 660. Letter of William Edward West to his father, February 4, 1822.

6. Pennington, p. 19-20. Also, Estill Curtis Pennington, 1985: William Edward West, 1788-1857; Kentucky Painter. Washington, D.C., National Portrait Gallery.

7. Malone, Dumas, ed., 1936: Dictionary of American Biography. Volume 20, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, p. 12-13.

8. The Johnson Collection, 2013: William Edward West, 1788-1857. Spartanburg, South Carolina.

9. Pennington, p. 299.

10. Malone, p. 13.

11. Dunn, p. 667. Letter to Col. Aspinall, January 1839. Aspinall was left in charge of West’s business dealings in London.

12. Malone, p. 13.

13. Dunn, p. 669.

14. See marker at:

15. Pennington, p. 19.

16. Black, p. 45.

17. Smithsonian Institution, 2013: “William Edward West papers. [ca. 1818-1961]”. Inventory of items donated by Gertrude M. Meissner, West descendent, in 1983.

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