How an American defined the British Empire
The French and Indian War is the ultimate forgotten conflict in US history. Most folks can’t even get the combatants correct, guessing that it was the French and Indians who fought one another during the 1754-63 struggle.
The famous oil on canvas image depicts the death of British General James Wolfe during the pivotal Battle of Quebec in 1759. Wolfe’s army was in the process of defeating the forces of the Marquis de Montcalm, spelling the beginning of the end of French ambitions in North America.
Montcalm, like Wolfe, was mortally wounded during the battle, which took place just outside the walls of Quebec City, on the Plains of Abraham
Ironically, the interpretation of West, an American, of Wolfe’s death became iconic, “crystallizing for a patriotic public the moment when Britain assumed the mantle of empire,” according to artdaily.org.
“When Benjamin West’s painting The Death of General Wolfe was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1771 it was received with great acclaim and quickly became one of the most famous paintings in eighteenth-century Britain, serving for generations as the consummate projection of its military, moral, and cultural supremacy and a celebration of Empire,” according to the website.
What set West’s work apart from most other paintings of the era was that it the figures were shown in modern dress, rather than classical garb, as was the style at the time.
Wolfe is shown wearing a fairly simple red coat, a red waistcoat, red breeches and a white shirt. Such dress was rather simple, especially for a commanding officer.
“In so doing, West flouted the conventions of the genre put forth by academic painters such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famed director of the Royal Academy,” artdaily writes.
The work, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, is magnificent in artistry even if it is somewhat deficient in historical accuracy.
For example, among the figures shown is Simon Fraser, lieutenant colonel of the 78th Fraser Highlanders. Fraser, however, was not at the battle, as he was recovering from wounds received earlier. In fact, only four of the 14 men depicted were actually on the battlefield.
One of the more striking figures in the painting is that of a Native American warrior, shown kneeling with his chin on his fist to the left of the wounded Wolfe.
While Indians did indeed assist both the British and the French during the noted clash, it seems unlikely a warrior would leave the field of battle with the issue still in doubt.
One of the more remarked-upon aspects of West’s work is the way the artist portrayed Wolfe as Christ-like, according to Dr. Bryan Zygmont, a scholar of 18th and 19th century American art, history and culture at Clarke University.
“West was clearly influenced by the innumerable images of the dead Christ in Lamentation and Depositions paintings that he would have seen during his time in Italy,” Zygmont writes.
“This deliberate visual association between the dying General Wolfe and the dead Christ underscores the British officer’s admirable qualities,” he adds. “If Christ was innocent, pure, and died for a worthwhile cause – that is, the salvation of mankind – then Wolfe too was innocent, pure, and died for a worthwhile cause; the advancement of the British position in North America.”
The painting, despite its popularity today, was not an immediate success.
During the actual painting, several influential people, including Reynolds, instructed West to dress the figures in classical attire, and after its completion, George III refused to purchase it because the clothing was said to have compromised the dignity of the event.
West, a native of Pennsylvania, got the last laugh, so to speak. He would go on to become the president of the Royal Academy in London, serving from 1792 to 1805, and again from 1806 until his death in 1820.
(Above: The Death of General Wolfe, Benjamin West, 1770, National Gallery of Canada.)