The Treaty of Paris, 1783

PROJECT: Painting<em>American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain.</em><br />By Benjamin West, London, England; 1783 (begun).<br />Oil on canvas.<br />(Unframed) Height: 28 ½” (72.3 cm); Width: 36 ¼” (92.7 cm).<br /><em>1957.856</em><br />

CREATOR: Benjamin West

STATUS: Incomplete

EXPECTED DATE OF COMPLETION: N/A

STORY: This painting was started, as the title implies, to depict the new United States and Great Britain signing the Treaty of Paris after the American Revolutionary War. The painting was actively worked on from 1783-1784.

The painting is incomplete because the British representatives present at the signing refused to sit for it. The Treaty of Paris, and painting, represented a defeat, and they had no interest in documenting the event.

I found this unfinished project particularly intriguing because of the impact outside influences had upon it. It wasn’t for lack of motivation or supplies–the project is incomplete because of pure non-cooperation. Words like “unsportsmanlike” and “silly” come to mind when I think about the representatives’ stubbornness; this was history in the making, after all. They could have swallowed their pride and recognized that this momentous occasion would probably extend beyond them. Seriously, England, get over yourself. The world did not revolve around you yet; your empire wouldn’t peak for another hundred-ish years.

However, I can’t fairly blame them. It does seem a bit strange to ask your recently defeated enemy to sit for you for hours so you can paint the moment the defeat was official. Perhaps that’s the way things were done at the time, but I’d consider it salt in the wound if it were me, and I’m sure Britain felt the same way.

Besides, the painting wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if they had complied, and the painting had been completed. It would just get lost in the mass collection of completed historical paintings, and I almost certainly would not be paying it any attention, even if the Revolutionary War is my favorite.

The somewhat petty drama of this painting’s story is delightful. It reminds me that these milestone events took place between real humans. These immortalized figures in our history books and on our money had to sit still for hours so that someone could leave a depiction I would only need to sit still for a second to achieve with a camera today. I can appreciate their patience more fully because I know that other figures weren’t similarly immortalized (at least in this painting) when they wouldn’t be bothered to offer the same patience.

By going through the effort to forget about and block out the vision of signing the Treaty of Paris, the British representatives made sure I wouldn’t forget it. Although I’m sure it wasn’t their intention, the British representatives forced Benjamin West to execute the non-finito technique effectively and successfully. The story of the empty canvas fills in the blank spaces, completing the project.

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1 Comment

One thought on “The Treaty of Paris, 1783

  1. Jinger

    This is a really interesting story. I had no idea that a painting was even attempted at the signing of the Treaty of Paris. I bet it was the two guys in the back (the one in orange and the one on the far left in brown) that didn’t want to sacrifice their pride and refused to stand any longer for it to be completed. It really does add drama to the painting by its incompleteness.

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