The subject of Benjamin West’s famous painting (1771–72; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) is the oft-told story of William Penn meeting with the Delaware (Lenape) Indians in 1682 and compensating them with manufactured goods for the land “granted” him by the king of England. Until then, it was said, no European colonist had thought it necessary to trade legally with Native Americans to secure a common peace. The story was widely known. Indeed, in 1733 Voltaire is said to have singled out Penn’s agreement with the Delaware as the only never-broken treaty between Christians and Native Americans.1See Allen Staley, Benjamin West—American Painter at the English Court (Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1989), 59. 2.Staley, Benjamin West, 62.
In the scene as imagined by West, Penn’s treaty with the Indians is linked with the actual foundation of the colony of Pennsylvania through the buildings under construction in the background. In the original painting, commissioned from West by Penn’s son John, the founding date of 1682 is inscribed on the gable of the house behind Penn, but in the State Department copy this detail does not survive. Indeed, the buildings are much less prominent in the copy, which was made not from the original painting but from an engraving of it. It was engraved in 1776 by William Wollett and published by the dealer John Boydell. In the eighteenth century the print was second in popularity only to the engraving of West’s Death of General Wolfe with which it was paired, and together they made Boydell rich.2Staley, Benjamin West, 62. The engraving was in its turn copied by many painters whose copies are instantly recognizable because, like the engraving, they reproduce the original composition in mirror image reversal.3It is hard to explain the close color correspondence between West’s original painting and the Collection’s small copy after the engraving. Perhaps our artist was copying an engraving that had been accurately hand-colored after the original, for if he had seen the original he surely would not have reversed his copy.
The large number of engraved and painted copies affirmed and furthered the fame of West’s painting, and of the legend it depicted. But it is a legend, one that reflects a widespread belief in Penn’s pacific Quaker character. No treaty exists, and the popular assumption that it does exist must be credited to West’s painting. The first written description of the treaty ceremony is found only in 1813, in Thomas Clarkson’s Memoirs of the Private and Public Life of William Penn, and Clarkson consulted West while writing his book. Clarkson’s account of the treaty ceremony is in fact a description of West’s painting, which thus becomes the primary document, the authorized standard version of the supposed event. The history painting has “authenticated” the legend.4Von Erffa and Staley, 207, cat. no. 85.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.