House that Benjamin West was born in, drawn by John Sartain in 1837
West was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, in a house that is now in the borough of Swarthmore on the campus of Swarthmore College, as the tenth child of an innkeeper and his wife. The family later moved to Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, where his father was the proprietor of the Square Tavern, still standing in that town. West told the novelist John Galt, with whom, late in his life, he collaborated on a memoir, The Life and Studies of Benjamin West (1816, 1820) that, when he was a child, Native Americans showed him how to make paint by mixing some clay from the river bank with bear grease in a pot. Benjamin West was an autodidact; while excelling at the arts, "he had little [formal] education and, even when president of the Royal Academy, could scarcely spell". One day his mother left him alone with his little sister Sally. Benjamin discovered some bottles of ink and began to paint Sally’s portrait. When his mother came home, she noticed the painting, picked it up and said, “Why, it’s Sally!” and kissed him. Later, he noted, "My mother's kiss made me a painter."
From 1746 to 1759, West worked in Pennsylvania, mostly painting portraits. While West was in Lancaster in 1756, his patron, a gunsmith named William Henry, encouraged him to paint a Death of Socrates based on an engraving in Charles Rollin's Ancient History. His resulting composition, which significantly differs from the source, has been called "the most ambitious and interesting painting produced in colonial America". Dr William Smith, then the provost of the College of Philadelphia, saw the painting in Henry's house and decided to become West's patron, offering him education and, more importantly, connections with wealthy and politically connected Pennsylvanians. During this time West met John Wollaston, a famous painter who had immigrated from London. West learned Wollaston's techniques for painting the shimmer of silk and satin, and also adopted some of "his mannerisms, the most prominent of which was to give all his subjects large almond-shaped eyes, which clients thought very chic".
West was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin, whose portrait he painted. Franklin was the godfather of West's second son, Benjamin.