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Benjamin West's Lear and Cordelia

Born in the colony of Pennsylvania in 1738, the American artist Benjamin West was so well received during a stay in England in the 1760s that he moved there permanently, becoming a founding member of the Royal Academy and Historical Painter to King George III. West was known for such history paintings as Penn's Treaty with the Indians, but he was also attracted to Shakespeare's plays. In the course of his career, he painted scenes from Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. The scenes are drawn directly from Shakespeare's text, rather than depicted as stage productions.

King Lear was a popular subject during this period, and the play seems to have had considerable appeal for West, who painted Lear in the Storm in 1788 as well as several depictions of this scene, usually called King Lear and Cordelia. This version, from 1793, is his fourth and last. With either Kent or a physician steadying the battered Lear, Cordelia tenderly greets her father as he awakes from the sleep that has cured his madness—albeit too late to ward off the tragic deaths of both.

Benjamin West. King Lear and Cordelia (King Lear IV.vii). Oil on canvas, 1793

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