In contrast to his time in Philadelphia and London, Benbridge achieved success almost immediately on settling in Charleston. Replacing the rigid colonial portrait style of the aging Jeremiah Theus, Benbridge worked instead in a manner that demonstrated the many different sources and influences he was exposed to in Europe.
Artist. An accomplished portrait painter and miniaturist, Henry Benbridge settled in Charleston in 1773 and worked for nearly two decades in the Neo-Classical style. Born on October 20, 1743, in Philadelphia, little is known about his early training. It is likely that he was exposed to a variety of artists working in Philadelphia during the time of his youth, including Benjamin West, William Willams, John Hesselius, and Matthew Pratt.
In 1764 Benbridge traveled abroad to further his studies. Traditionally he has been identified as one of the sitters in Matthew Pratt’s The American School, suggesting that his first stop was London. By 1765 Benbridge was in Rome sharing quarters with the successful Irish sculptor Christopher Hewetson. Benbridge enrolled in the academy of Pompeo Batoni, a favorite of the British on the grand tour. Probably at the suggestion of Benjamin West, he became acquainted with the work of Anton Raphael Mengs, a leading contemporary artist whom West copied. In 1769, after four years of study, Benbridge left Italy for London, where Benjamin West served as his primary contact. While there, Benbridge attempted to advance his reputation as an artist by exhibiting a full-length portrait of the Corsican hero Pascal Paoli through the Free Society of Artists and portraits of Thomas Coombe and Benjamin Franklin at the Royal Academy.
In 1770 Benbridge returned to Philadelphia, presumably to continue his career as an artist. While few paintings exist from this period, he was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1771. In 1772 he married Esther “Hetty” Sage, who is identified as a miniature portraitist. They had one son, Henry.
In contrast to his time in Philadelphia and London, Benbridge achieved success almost immediately on settling in Charleston. Replacing the rigid colonial portrait style of the aging Jeremiah Theus, Benbridge worked instead in a manner that demonstrated the many different sources and influences he was exposed to in Europe. His study of classical antiquity and grand tour portraiture were the bases for his quick rise. Wealthy planters and those with ties to Philadelphia and London comprised the majority of Benbridge’s initial Charleston commissions. Among the earliest were portraits of Middleton family members.
Eventually Benbridge’s Revolutionary sentiments became apparent in his choice of subjects. When Charleston fell to British forces in 1780, Benbridge–a patriot–was imprisoned on a ship and exiled to St. Augustine along with other colonial sympathizers. Sent to Philadelphia on his release in 1783, Benbridge was back in Charleston by 1784. Many of his sitters after the Revolutionary War were connected to him through political sentiment or their incarceration in St. Augustine. A series of portraits of Charleston Revolutionary War heroes dates from this postwar period.
Why or when Benbridge left Charleston is unclear. His last known correspondence to his sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Gordon Saltar, is dated 1787 and suggests that he did not want for commissions in the area. He continued to appear in the city directory until 1790. In 1799 the painter Thomas Sully encountered him in Norfolk, Virginia, where he may have been living with his son. Scant paintings are known to exist from this later part of his life. The exact date of his death is unclear, but he was buried in Christ Church Cemetery, Philadelphia, on January 25, 1812.
Mack, Angela D. “Henry Benbridge: Charleston Portrait Painter.” Magazine Antiques 158 (November 2000): 726–33.
McInnis, Maurie D. Henry Benbridge, 1743–1812, Charleston Portrait Painter. Charleston, S.C.: Carolina Art Association, 2000.
Stewart, Robert G. Henry Benbridge (1743–1812): American Portrait Painter. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971.