Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd

  • Oil on canvas
  • 24 ¼ × 18 inches · 615 × 455 mm
  • Signed lower right: ‘B. West 1805’


  • Offered by Benjamin West’s sons to the United States in 1826;
  • West sale, Robins, London 22-25 May 1829, lot.54 (£26.5.0);
  • Sir Oswald Mosley, 2nd Bt (1785-1871), Rolleston Hall, Staffordshire, bought at the above sale;
  • John Burton Philips (1785-1847), Heath House, Upper Tean, Staffordshire, acquired from the above;
  • By descent at Heath House, Staffordshire until 2022;
  • Philips sale, Mellors & Kirk, Nottingham, 12th April, 2022, lot.104;
  • Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd.


  • London, Royal Academy, 1805, no.145 (Belisarius and the boy – Vide Marmontel);
  • London, British Institution, 1806, no.46 (Belisarius and the boy, begging arms);
  • London, West’s Gallery, 1821, no.84;
  • London, West’s Gallery, 1822-1828, no.8;
  • Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, American Artists in Europe 1800-1900, 1976, cat. no.71


  • Henry Moses, The Gallery of Pictures Painted by Benjamin West Esqr., historical painter to His Majesty & President of the Royal Academy engraved in outline by Henry Moses, London, 1811, pl.III;
  • Helmut Von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West, New Haven and London, 1986, p.185, no.44 (illustrated)

This small painting by Benjamin West was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1805. It is one of several works West made of the general Belisarius depicted as a blind beggar. The iconography derived from the novel Bélisaire published by François Marmontel in 1767, which perpetuated the apocryphal story that Belisarius, after a long and successful career serving the Emperor Justinian, was blinded and reduced to begging at the Pincian Gate in Rome. The image of the loyal soldier reduced to penury by a tyrannous ruler found enormous popularity in the last decades of the eighteenth century and formed the basis of celebrated paintings by Jacques-Louis David (Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille) amongst others. Marmontel’s text stressed the pathos of the situation by introducing a young boy who helps the aged Belisarius by begging for alms on his behalf. West followed Marmontel, even mentioning his name in the catalogue of the Royal Academy when this painting was exhibited there in 1805, but as Von Erffa and Staley have pointed out, this painting does not illustrate a specific passage from the book itself. Preserved in excellent condition this small work remained in West’s studio until sold by his sons in 1829.

By 1805 Benjamin West was President of the Royal Academy and the pre-eminent history painter in Britain. Born in Pennsylvania, West had trained in Rome from 1760 to 1763 before establishing a hugely successful and diverse practice in London. A drawing by West, now in the Morgan Library & Museum, seems to have been his first treatment of the subject, it shows the blind, old soldier seated on a Roman capital being recognised by his soldiers. West developed the composition in a painting now in the Detroit Institute of Arts, dated 1802, focusing on the seated Belisarius and his young companion. Belisarius is shown with his hand upon the young boy, who holds Belisarius’s helmet outstretched for alms. The present painting develops the Detroit composition, showing the seated Belisarius, downcast and staff in hand, with his arm upon the young boy who looks out at the viewer arms outstretched imploring our sympathy for the old general. On the wall above Belisarius West has placed a tablet inscribed ‘DATE OBOLUM BELISARIO’ which translates as ‘Give a penny to Belisarius’. This is a formula of words not found in Marmontel, but prominently visible in the most notable contemporary treatment of the subject in paint, David’s 1781 canvas which West could have known through Antonie Alexandre Morel’s engraving published in 1793. West has based the figure of Belisarius on a notable artists’ model, George White, who appears in a number of works by West, Joshua Reynolds and other notable painters of the period.

Benjamin West
Belisarius Recognized by His Soldiers
Pen and brown ink on paper.
6 5/16 x 7 ⅛ inches; 160 x 182 mm
The Morgan Library & Museum
Purchased as the gift of Mrs. Robert H. Charles 1970 11:71

Benjamin West
The Pilgrim Mourning His Dead Ass
Oil on canvas
19 ⅝ × 14 ⅜ inches; 498 × 365 mm
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of the family of Joseph S. Cullinan, 53.4
Photograph ©The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Dave Crossley

Lushly painted, this work shows West’s enduring interest in Venetian art; the shimmering highlights, rich colours and thickly applied paint all point to his veneration of the works of Titian. The painting remained in West’s studio until his death, it was part of a group of West’s paintings offered by his sons to the United States in 1826, eventually selling in London in 1829. It was acquired by the Staffordshire landowner John Burton Philips for Heath House, where it remained until 2022.

Henry Moses, after Henry Corbould, after Benjamin West
Engraving on chine collé
9 ⅜ x 7 ⅛ inches; 238 x 201mm
Published May 1. 1811 by H. Moses, 65, Newman St
© The Trustees of the British Museum