Born in 1738 the tenth child of an innkeeper in Springfield (now Swarthmore), Pennsylvania, West’s earliest paintings are portraits painted in his early teens. He spent a year, probably 1755-6, he was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, painting portraits. A first essay at history painting in 1756 won him the support of the Rev William Smith, principal of the College of Philadelphia, who offered to give him a classical education. He thus moved to Philadelphia.
There he seems to have received some instruction (either at this time or perhaps earlier) from the English painter William Williams and a Moravian preacher-painter called John Valentine Heidt. In 1760 the Rev Smith arranged his passage to Europe. The years 1760-3 were spent in Italy where, following the Grant Tour and studiously copying antique sculptures and old master paintings in Rome and northern Italy, West acquired proficiency as a history painter.
English acquaintances, including the King’s librarian Richard Dalton, were impressed with his work and persuaded him to travel to London. In England he soon established himself as a leading neoclassical painter and became a major figure in the London art establishment.
He received patronage from George III who in 1772 appointed him Historical Painter to the King. He was later also Surveyor of the King’s Pictures (1791) and after Reynold’s death in 1792 took over as President of the Royal Academy. He resigned in 1805 and was succeeded by the architect James Wyatt, though West was again elected President the following year and held the position until his death.
West’s work for the crown involved a series of decorative schemes for Windsor Castle on which he was working between 1779 and 1801, including a huge but unfinished project for the the Royal Chapel. His painting Joshua passing the River Jordan with the ark of the covenant 1800 was one of a number of studies in oil that West painted for this ambitious commission, which was planned to include 16 canvases to be installed in the Royal Chapel to replace an earlier set of decorations by Anotonio Verrio. The subject of the painting is a biblical scene illustrating Joshua 3:17 in which, after the death of Moses, the waters of the river Jordan parted to allow the Israelites to pass. West planned the final full scale painting to measure 275 × 180cm, but it was never executed.
His most famous work, and the most successful in terms of public popularity was the Death of General Wolfe which broke new ground in applying the principles of classical history painting to a contemporary subject in modern dress.