This brief picture-book biography of Benjamin West, “the father of American art,” has an informing theme that unifies text and illustration into a seamless whole. That theme is set in the brief prologue, which introduces the large West family and notes that when Benjamin was born in 1738, ten children, the preacher prophesied that “this boy will do great things someday.” From that day forward, Brenner tells us, “everyone kept…waiting for the first signs of greatness.” They did not have long to wait, for at age seven Benjamin, with no formal lessons, made an accomplished drawing of his sister’s baby. Subsequently, he learned to make paint from a member of the friendly Lenape tribe and a paintbrush from a traveler staying at the inn. With admirable ingenuity, he fashioned the latter from the fur of his cat Grimalkin, who was not too enthused about his role as artist’s assistant. Eventually, the cat’s mangy appearance led to discovery-and to his parents’ decision to send him to a “real live artist” for an assessment of his work. That decision changed his life. In the succeeding chapter, “And Then What Happened,” the author neatly summarizes West’s subsequent career, his education, his success as a portrait painter, his friendship with Benjamin Franklin, and his life as an expatriate in England, where, despite his friendship with George III, he remained loyal to the American cause during the Revolution. The choice of subject, the emphasis on West’s early years, and the careful selection of childlike incidents such as the cat’s unwilling involvement all make this biography appropriate as a picture-book treatment and appealing for the intended audience. The result is a handsome interpretation, faithful to its subject, lively to read, distinctively colonial in pictorial content, and cast in a well-designed format with simple two-line black borders framing an appropriate typeface and flattened, angular illustrations. 48 pages.
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