Art, Exhibitions and Installations, J. Paul Getty Museum, Prints and Drawings

The Drawing That Once Hung in Thomas Jefferson’s Parlor

An American has slipped his way into exclusive British company—the exhibition Luminous Paper: British Watercolors and Drawings, opening July 19.

Owned for years by Thomas Jefferson, admirer of all things classical, this pen-and-ink by Pennsylvania-born artist Benjamin West depicts a dramatic moment from the Iliad (are there any other kind?) in which warrior Hector bids farewell to his wife.

<em>The Fright of Astyanax (Hector Bidding Farewell to Andromache)</em>, Benjamin West, 1797. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.GG.722

The Fright of Astyanax (Hector Bidding Farewell to Andromache), Benjamin West, pen and brown ink, brown wash, and blue and white bodycolor on brown prepared paper, 1797. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.GG.722

West dedicated the drawing to Thaddeus Kosciuszko, hero of the American Revolution, and Kosciuszko passed the drawing to his friend Jefferson, who hung it in the parlor of Monticello, in the vicinity of a print of Kosciuszko, a bust of Napoleon…and watercolors of Virginia songbirds.

West was almost as exemplary an American as Jefferson, climbing from middle-class obscurity in Swarthmore to refined gentility in London thanks to his great talent for Neoclassical history painting; his charm and good looks didn’t hurt, either. Though he served George III as court painter (boo! hiss!), he redeemed himself by repeatedly appealing to the plunderer of seas and burner of towns to grant independence to the colonies.

And where the artist failed, soldiers like Kosciuszko and statesmen like Jefferson prevailed. Happy Fourth of July!

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      William Pope.L

      Tell us a bit about how and why you became an artist.

      I used to blame my being an artist on my grandmother, but that was my younger self looking for a scapegoat. At one point in undergrad, I had a moment, a crisis where I thought it was my job to save my family and the best way to that was to be a commercial artist—but I had to let go of that. Truth be told, being an artist is something I choose every day. Of course, maybe I choose art because I’m afraid of theater—too much memorizing and being in the moment and shit.

      A lot of your work deals with racial issues—perceptions of “blackness,” “whiteness,” the absurdity of racial prejudices, the violence of it. Why do you address race in your work? Do you think art can be an agent of change?

      I address race in my work ‘cause day-to-day in our country it addresses me. Yes, art can change the world but so can Disney—so there is that. I think the real question is not can art change the world, but can art be changed by the world? Would we allow this?

      Humor, with a touch of the absurd, seems to be an important component in your artistic practice. What role does humor play in your work?

      I like to use humor in my work ‘cause it answers/deals with questions in ways that are very unique. Humor answers questions with an immediacy and creates a productive amnesia of the moment in the receiver—but then the wave recedes, the world floods back in with its pain, confusions, and crush but the humor remains like a perfume or an echo or a kiss inside beneath one’s skin.

      More: Artist William Pope.L on Humor, Race, and God

      From top: Obi Sunt (Production Image from the making of Obi Sunt), 2015, William Pope.L. Courtesy of the Artist © Pope.L; Gans-Nelson fight, from the album ‘Incident to the Gans-Nelson fight’ (Page 40-3), Goldfield, NV, September 3, 1906, William Pope.L. Courtesy of Steve Turner and the Artist; Tour People, 2005, William Pope.L. Courtesy of the Artist © Pope.L; Failure Drawing #301, NYU/Napkin, Rocket Crash, William Pope.L. Courtesy of the Artist © Pope.L.


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