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Benjamin, Samuel G. W.

    Image Credit: Wikipedia

    Full Name: Benjamin, Samuel Greene Wheeler

    Other Names:

    • S. G. W. Benjamin

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1837

    Date Died: 1914

    Place Born: Árgos, Argolís, Peloponnese, Greece

    Place Died: Burlington, Chittenden, VT, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): American (North American), European, painting (visual works), and Turkish (culture or style)

    Career(s): art critics

    Institution(s): Harper's Magazine and United States Department of State


    Self-taught historian and critic of American art. Benjamin was born in Argos, Greece in 1837 where his parents were American missionaries. He was educated at the English College in Smyrna, Turkey and Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He graduated from Williams College in 1859 having studied both law and art, also seamanship. During his travels, he gained experience as a maritime painter and illustrator. Benjamin published a series of marine depictions of the Crimean War in the London Illustrated News in 1854. He married Clara Stowell, (d. 1880) in 1863. His first book, Ode on the Death of Abraham Lincoln, appeared in response to Lincoln’s assination in 1865. During 1867 he published The Turk and the Greek; or, Creeds, races, society, and scenery in Turkey, Greece, and the isles of Greece, indicating his early interest in international affairs that would lead to a position in the State Department. Later, in 1870, he opened a studio in Boston to produce oil and watercolor paintings. He also began publishing travel and art criticism for Harpers Magazine. The first of his art-historical books, Contemporary Art in Europe, was published in 1877, an collection and augmentation of the Harpers articles. After a book on maritime subject, 1879, he then published Art in America: A Critical and Historical Sketch in 1880. In 1881 Our American Artists, was written to educate children on American art history. The book was dedicated to his daughter, Edith. After the death of his first wife, Benjamin married again, Fannie Nichols Weed, in 1882. He was appointed the first United States minister to Persia in 1883 by President Chester A. Arthur. He held the position for two years. During that time, he notably settled disputes over foreign land tenure and helped to create a code for extraterritorial practices. He was given an honorable mention for the display of Persian products at an exhibition in New Orleans. After leaving his post as American minister to Persia, he went on to publish several more histories and travel accounts, including The Story of Persia. Benjamin died in 1914 at his home in Burlington, Vermont.

    Benjamin represents the early appearance of art writing in the United States. Trained only remedially in art history, he blended travel accounts with the art of the region.  Contemporary Art in Europe, his most art-historical work, examines the work of England, France, and Germany. Typical for this kind of writing, the art within the countries is divided into “schools”, emerging trends and decorative arts. The artists discussed represent the popular taste of the period, so-called academic painters (e.g., Carl von Piloty) and beaux arts (William-Adolphe Bouguereau). Controvercial artists–most notably the Impressionists–were omitted.

    Selected Bibliography



    Contributors: Arial Hart


    Arial Hart. "Benjamin, Samuel G. W.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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