Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans - Edward Eggleston
In old times there lived in Pennsylvania a little fellow whose name was Benjamin West. He lived in a long stone house.
He had never seen a picture. The country was new, and there were not many pictures in it. Benny's father was a Friend or Quaker. The Friends of that day did not think that pictures were useful things to make or to have.
Before he was seven years old, this little boy began to draw pictures. One day he was watching the cradle of his sister's child. The baby smiled. Benny was so pleased with her beauty, that he made a picture of her in red and black ink. The picture of the baby pleased his mother when she saw it. That was very pleasant to the boy.
Painting Baby's Portrait
He made other pictures. At school he used to draw with a pen before he could write. He made pictures of birds and of animals. Sometimes he would draw flowers.
He liked to draw so well, that sometimes he forgot to do his work. His father sent him to work in the field one day. The father went out to see how well he was doing his work. Benny was nowhere to be found. At last his father saw him sitting under a large poke-weed. He was making pictures. He had squeezed the juice out of some poke-berries. The juice of poke-berries is deep red. With this the boy had made his pictures. When the father looked at them, he was surprised. There were portraits of every member of the family. His father knew every picture.
Flower and Fruit of the Poke-Berry
Up to this time Benny had no paints nor any brushes. The Indians had not all gone away from that neighborhood. The Indians paint their faces with red and yellow colors. These colors they make themselves. Sometimes they prepare them from the juice of some plant. Sometimes they get them by finding red or yellow earth. Some of the Indians can make rough pictures with these colors.
The Indians near the house of Benny's father must have liked the boy. They showed him how to make red and yellow colors for himself. He got some of his mother's indigo to make blue. He now had red, yellow, and blue. By mixing these three, the other colors that he wanted could be made.
But he had no brush to paint with. He took some long hairs from the cat's tail. Of these he made his brushes. He used so many of the cat's hairs, that her tail began to look bare. Everybody in the house began to wonder what was the matter with pussy's tail. At last Benny told where he got his brushes.
Making a Paint Brush
A cousin of Benny's came from the city on a visit. He saw some of the boy's drawings. When he went home, he sent Benny a box of paints. With the paints were some brushes. And there was some canvas such as pictures are painted on. And that was not all. There were in the box six beautiful engravings.
The little painter now found himself rich. He was so happy he could hardly sleep at all. At night he put the box that held his treasures on a chair by his bed. As soon as daylight came, he carried the precious box to the garret. The garret of the long stone house was his studio. Here he worked away all day long. He did not go to school at all. Perhaps he forgot that there was any school. Perhaps the little artist could not tear himself away from his work.
But the schoolmaster missed him. He came to ask if Benny was ill. The mother was vexed when she found that he had stayed away from school. She went to look for the naughty boy. After a while she found the little truant. He was hard at work in his garret.
She saw what he had been doing. He had not copied any of his new engravings. He had made up a new picture by taking one person out of one engraving, and another out of another. He had copied these so that they made a picture that he had thought of for himself.
His mother could not find it in her heart to punish him. She was too much pleased with the picture he was making. This picture was not finished. But his mother would not let him finish it. She was afraid he would spoil it if he did anything more on it.
The good people called Friends did not like the making of pictures, as I said. But they thought that Benny West had a talent that he ought to use. So he went to Philadelphia to study his art. After a while he sailed away to Italy to see the pictures that great artists had painted.
At last he settled in England. The King of England was at that time the king of this country, too. The king liked West's pictures. West became the king's painter. He came to be the most famous painter in England.
He liked to remember his boyish work. He liked to remember the time when he was a little Quaker boy making his paints of poke-juice and Indian colors.