By Paul Foster

The enormous painting is impossible to miss in Pennsylvania Hospital’s Gal­lery Pavilion. But how Benjamin West’s grand Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple found its way to the hospital is a story in itself.

West was born in 1738 in nearby Springfield, Pa., and began painting here before moving to Italy to master his craft. He then established himself as one of the most successful painters in England and became George III’s painter of historical scenes. West completed Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple in 1811, intended as a gift for the hospital. But English royalty took a liking to it before it was shipped across the ocean. Needing the money after a long illness, West sold it to the Prince Regent for what was then a record sum for a work of art and prom­ised Pennsylvania Hospital a second ver­sion of the original. (The original is now in the National Gallery, London.)

True to his word, West worked dili­gently and the second Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple was completed in 1815. It looks like the one that was sold to the Prince Regent, but with one addi­tion. At the time, Pennsylvania Hospital was at the forefront in treating mental illness, so West added a mentally ill man (“a demoniac,” in his words) and his care­taker. When it arrived in Philadelphia in 1817, the painting was such a success that a new structure was built to house it, aptly named the Picture House. An esti­mated 30,000 visitors viewed it during the first 12 months, paying admission fees, and the painting is estimated to have raised $15,000 while housed there. 

The painting now and hangs front and center in the Gallery Pavilion, be­tween the historic Pine Building and the more modern parts of the hospital. Af­ter years on display, however, the paint­ing is in need of another conservation treatment. Previous treatments dealt with a bulge in the left bottom of the painting, but those treatments have not solved the problem. Stacey Peeples, Pennsylvania Hospital’s curator and lead archivist, explains that the canvas has been stretched several times, and a new work plan is now in need of im­plementation. 

According to Peeples, the best option now is to “back” the painting, which means literally giving the hung canvas a hard backing to provide long-term sup­port. Fundraising efforts have proved helpful, but they are still a little short of having enough to go through with the conservation, which includes the con­struction of a small room right inside the gallery area. he painting has its own fire protec­tion, a metal wall that can be lowered and raised manually in the case of disas­ter. Peeples says that it’s been lowered only twice in her 15 years at Pennsylva­nia Hospital.

In a letter that accompanied the paint­ing on its voyage, West wrote that he bequeathed the painting to the hospital in the joint names of himself and his wife, noting “their patriotic affection for the State of Pennsylvania, in which they first inhaled the vital air.”

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