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Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple (1817)

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 work.

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 site.

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.

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