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Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple

Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple, 1811, Oil on Canvas
Benjamin West (Anglo-American, 1738 – 1820)

This painting is a highlight in the Pennsylvania Hospital collection. In 1800 the Pennsylvania Hospital Board of Managers wrote to Benjamin West (then historical painter to King George III) requesting that he “paint something” for them to put on display as a fundraiser for the hospital. West agreed, creating the first Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple in 1811. The finished piece was so well received that British aristocrats and artists urged West to sell it to the Prince Regent for the highest amount paid for a piece of art work at that time with the agreement that he be able to create a second version of the painting. (The 1811 piece will then go on to become the first artwork to be hung in what will later become London’s National Gallery.) West’s “improved” version of the painting was finished in 1815, displayed in London for two years, and then sent to Philadelphia on the ship Electra. (The two paintings are nearly identical with the exception of the “demoniac” or “lunatic boy” on the right side of the painting, which was added to the second painting as a homage to the Pennsylvania Hospital’s humane care of the mentally ill.) Once it arrived in Philadelphia, the image was placed in a special “picture house” remotely designed by West. This way, the artist ensured that his piece would have the ideal lightning and arrangements for its appreciation. The artist’s recommendation quickly paid off as the painting became a national hit. Even taking into consideration the expenses used for the construction of the picture house, hospital officials reported an income of over twenty-five thousand dollars between 1817 and 1843 solely from admission fees.