Benjamin West, The Fatal Wounding of Sir Philip Sidney

Benjamin West: The Fatal Wounding of Sir Philip Sidney (1806) Oil on canvas
The Fatal Wounding of Sir Philip Sidney
Oil on canvas
Credit Line
Bequest of Charles Knox Smith
78" x 62"

This impressive history painting by Benjamin West tells the story of Sir Philip Sidney and the 1586 Battle of Zutphen in the Netherlands. Sidney, an ardent Protestant, was a leader of the English forces against Catholic Spain. Fatally wounded in the leg in the course of the battle, Sidney directed his doctors to give water and tend to another soldier, depicted at left, who, unlike himself, stood a chance of surviving his wounds. Sidney became known as a martyr to the Protestant cause throughout Europe. Dramatic gestures, armored figures, a rearing horse, and the smoke of the battlefield convey that Sidney’s destiny is to be swept into the arc of history. 

The Fatal Wounding of Sir Philip Sidney was commissioned in England by Alexander Davison, a British shipowner and government contractor who gave West the freedom to paint a scene from English history with the stipulation that the artist incorporate a self portrait in the composition. West appears as the balding man at the right margin of the painting, nodding his head in reverence together with his white horse as he internalizes the meaning of the unfolding drama.

In addition to his act of selflessness, Sidney was a significant poet and philosopher of Elizabethan England. In his Apology for Poetry (1579), he posited that the arts, although based on the imitation of nature, surpass nature in the hands of the self-conscious artist who understands how to elevate his or her craft beyond mere imitation to create new meaning, and therefore, a new nature. A leading voice in the romantic movement in the arts of the nineteenth century, West embraced Sidney’s ideas, but he also seems to say that Sidney, like every mortal, also succumbs to nature in death, passing into history and human memory.  

The conservation of this painting was made possible in 1988 by The Institute of Museum Services; The Claneil Foundation; the Woodmere Art Museum Auxiliary; Mr. and Mrs. Walter Michener; Patricia Van Burgh Allison, Catherine M. Kuch, Madelon M. Meyer, Helen Taws, and Mari Liebert in memory of George Shoup; and Larice A.R. Burtt in memory of E. Jane Given

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