Born in Lexington, Kentucky, William Edward West was first instructed by his father, a silversmith. By 1809, the young artist was living in Philadelphia where he established a studio in support of his burgeoning career as an itinerant portraitist. His stylistic development in this field can be examined in three distinct phases. During the Philadelphia years, from 1809-1817, West worked briefly with Thomas Sully and adopted the elder artist’s compositional formats. Following a short itinerancy in the lower Mississippi Valley, circa 1817-1819, West, like many of his peers, embarked upon a European sojourn. While enrolled at the academy in Florence, Italy, West began to incorporate rich old master coloration and more fully developed anatomical modeling into his portraits, as evidenced by his 1822 commission of the English Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. In 1823, West moved on to Paris, where, in 1825, he entered the circle of the wealthy Caton-Patterson families from Baltimore; his allegorical portrait of the Caton sisters as The Muses of Painting, Poetry and Music represented his most ambitious composition to that date. West also met Washington Irving, whose books he would subsequently illustrate. Later that year, the artist left for London and became a regular fixture in the American expatriate community. He exhibited a number of ornate genre paintings at the Royal Academy and the British Institution during this period.
Disastrous events in his personal finances compelled West’s return to America in 1837. Working from Baltimore between 1837 and 1841, West, well connected and in demand as a portrait artist, was able to regain his financial footing. The influence of Thomas Lawrence’s romantic coloration and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ compositional style is evident in this third phase of West’s oeuvre, as seen in this circa 1839 likeness of Elizabeth Steuart Calvert. The daughter of a prominent Baltimore surgeon, Elizabeth was the wife of George Henry Calvert, a scion of the hereditary Lords Baltimore and the future mayor of Newport, Rhode Island. As in many of his portrayals, West uses Mrs. Calvert’s gaze—a sidelong glance beyond the immediate towards an indeterminate point—to expand a sense of presence.
West spent his final active years in New York, mingling freely with the city’s social aristocracy, including the Astor, Delano and Van Rensselaer families, some of whom shared his fascination with spiritualism. Known for sustaining loyal friendships with his patrons, the artist made a last visit to Natchez shortly before his death, spending time with early benefactors such as the Turner family and executing a haunting mourning portrait, Elizabeth Henrietta Young and Anna Elizabeth Mercer.