Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple
In 1800, the famous American painter Benjamin West received
a letter in London from the president of the Board of Managers
of Pennsylvania Hospital. Although West had chosen to spend his
life abroad, this teacher of other American artists and historical
painter to King George III was pleased by the request for a contribution
of a painting suitable to the first hospital in America.
The letter assured him:
"The works of an artist which ornament the palace of
his King cannot fail to honor him in his native land."
West's response was positive and he wrote:
"The subject I have chosen is analogous to the situation.
It is the Redeemer of mankind extending his aid to the afflicted
of all ranks and condition."
"Christ Healing the Sick
in the Temple" was completed and exhibited in 1811. It
excited such interest in England, however, that officers
of the British
Institution pressured West to sell it as the first work to
be hung in a proposed National Gallery. It was purchased
for 3,000 guineas, the largest sum ever paid for a modern
Determined to paint another for the hospital, West wrote to
promise "a more improved plan of composition." He decided
to include "a demoniac with his attendant relations" to
make reference to the hospital's treatment of the mentally ill.
The second painting was eventually completed and arrived in Philadelphia
on the ship "Electra" in 1817, free of export and import
duties by acts of both the English and American governments.
Accompanying the picture was a touching letter from West, who
was nearing the end of his long life. It read:
"Benjamin West, Historical Painter to His Majesty George
III, and the President of the Royal Academy of Arts in London,
feels the highest satisfaction in informing the Managers of the
Pennsylvania Hospital by having finished the picture of our Savior
receiving the Lame and Blind in the Temple to heal them. And
Mr. West bequeaths the said picture to the Hospital in the joint
names of himself and his wife, the late Elizabeth West, as their
gratuitous offering and as a humble record of their patriotic
affection for the State of Pennsylvania, in which they first
inhaled the vital air -- thus to perpetuate in her native city
of Philadelphia the sacred memory of that amiable lady who was
his companion in life for fifty years and three months."
The painting was first hung in its own specially constructed "Picture
House" on Spruce Street where the Cathcart Building now
stands. It attracted 30,000 visitors during the first twelve
months of display alone. The admission fees over a 25-year-period
were enough to pay for the building, and added $15,000 to hospital
funds. The painting has also been exhibited at the Pennsylvania
Academy of Fine Arts, the hospital's former West Philadelphia
Department for Mental and Nervous Diseases (the Institute), and
in a former clinical amphitheatre at the hospital's 8th Street
Several restorations of the painting have been accomplished
over the years as well, the most recent completed in 1981-82
in preparation for yet another exhibition at the Academy. Now
positioned between the historical and modern parts of the hospital, "Christ
Healing the Sick in the Temple" provides an eloquent
bridge between the hospital's past and future.
to 1801 - 1851