The title of this painting is taken from the final book of the Bible, the Revelation of Saint John the Divine, which has often been interpreted as a symbolic description of warfare: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And Power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth to kill with the sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth” (Rev. 6:8).

In this horrifying chronicle of the destruction of humankind, the rugged irregular forms, the dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and the dynamism of the turbulent movement combine with the distorted faces and pitiful gestures of the dead and dying to convey a sense of terror. The violent furor exhibits a destructive dynamism that makes this one of the most awesome depictions of the methods by which a world may be annihilated.
In 1796, the year this work was painted, England was at war with revolutionary France, and West’s picture may have been intended to comment on what was happening, or was expected to happen, in the contemporary world.
Artist Benjamin West, American, 1738-1820
Title
  • Death on the Pale Horse
Date 1796
Medium oil on canvas
Dimensions Unframed: 23 3/8 × 50 5/8 inches (59.4 × 128.6 cm)
Framed: 36 1/2 × 63 1/8 × 3 1/8 inches (92.7 × 160.3 × 7.9 cm)
Credit Line Founders Society Purchase, Robert H. Tannahill Foundation Fund
Accession Number 79.33
Department American Art before 1950
On View American W270, Level 2 (see map)
Signed Signed and dated, lower right: B. West 1796
possibly Henry Thomson, R. A. (London, England).
by 1820, George Wyndham, third Earl of Egremont (Petworth House, Sussex, England);
John Wyndham, seventh Baron Leconfield and second Baron Egremont.
July 19, 1978, Wyndham sale, Sotheby's, lot 18 (London, England).
dealer, P. and D. Colnaghi (London, England).
1979-present, purchase by the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, Michigan, USA)
Exh. cat., The Royal Academy. London, 1796, no. 247.

Exh. cat., La Salon. Paris, 1802, no. 756.

“A Correct Catalogue of the Works of Mr. West.” Public Characters of 1805 (1805): pp. 555-557.

“A Correct List of the Works of Mr. West.” Universal Magazine 3 (1805): p. 530.

Barlow, Joel. The Columbiad. A Poem. Philadelphia, 1807, p. 434.

“A Correct Catalogue of the Works of Benjamin West, Esq.” La Belle Assemblee or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine 4 (1808): pp. 17, 55.

Carey, William. Critical Description and Analytical Review of “Death on the Pale Horse” Painted by Benjamin West, P.R.A. London, 1817, pp. 47-48, 96, 102-103, 115, 122.

Galt, John. The Life and Works of Benjamin West, ESQ., President of the Royal Academy of London, Subsequent to his Arrival in the Country. London, 1820, p. 228.

Carey, William. “Memoires of Benjamin West, Esq., Late President of the Royal Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, London.” New Monthly Magazine 13 (1820): pp. 696-697.

Exh. cat., The Royal Academy. London, 1871, no. 39.

Flagg, Jared B. The Life and Letters of Washington Allston. New York, 1892, pp. 43-44.

Lansdown, Charlotte, ed. Recollections of the Late William Beckford, of Fonthill, Wilts, and Lansdown, Bath. 1893, p. 13.

Baker, C.H. Collins. Catalogue of the Petworth Collection of Pictures in the Possession of Lord Leconfield. London, 1920, p. 133.

Kimball, Fiske. “Benjamin West au Salon de 1802: La Mort sur le Chaval Pale.” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 7 (1932): pp. 403-410.

Keyes, Donald D. “Benjamin West’s Death on the Pale Horse: A Tradition’s End.” Ohio State University College of the Arts: The Arts 7 (September 1973): pp. 3-6.

Kraemer, Ruth S. Drawings by Benjamin West and his Son Raphael Lamar West. New York, 1975, p. 27.

Meyer, Jerry D. “Benjamin West’s Chapel of Revealed Religion: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Protestant Religious Art.” Art Bulletin 57 (June 1975): p. 265.

Dillenberger, John. Benjamin West: The Context of his Life’s Work with Particular Attention to Paintings with Religious Subject Matter. San Antonio, 1977, pp. 89-93 (pl. 64).

Alberts, Robert C. Benjamin West: A Biography. Boston, 1978, pp. 261-263, 270.

Farington, Joseph. The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vols. 1-6. New Haven, CT, 1978-1984, Vol. 2, p. 528 and Vol. 5, pp. 1820, 1823, 1851, 1875, 1935.

Staley, Allen. “West’s Death on the Pale Horse.” Bulletin of the DIA 58, 3 (1980): pp. 137-149 (ill.).

Evans, Dorinda. Benjamin West and His American Students. Exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery. Washington, D.C., 1980, pp. 19, 68, 134.

Pressly, Nancy L. Revealed Religion: Benjamin West’s Commissions for Windsor Castle and Fonthill Abbey. Exh, cat., San Antonio Museum of Art. San Antonio, TX, 1983, pp. 19, 58, 61-64.

Rosenblum, Robert and H.W. Janson. Nineteenth-Century Art. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1984, pp. 59-60 (pl. 6).

One Hundred Years of Master Works from the Detroit Institute of Arts. New York, 1985, p. 190 (ill.).

Von Erffa, Helmut and Allen Staley. Benjamin West. New Haven, CT, 1986, pp. 391-392, no. 403.

Black, Mary, et al. American Paintings in the Detroit Institute of Arts, Volume One: Works by Artists Born Before 1816. New York, 1991, p. 248, no. 109.

The World Turned Upside Down: Apocalyptic Imagery in England, 1750-1850. Exh. cat., Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University. Milwaukee, 2017, pp. 18-19 (ill.).