American Art / Art / Art history / General / History Paintings / Painting

What a Dramatic Death!


(citations are links in blue 🙂 )

We are gathered here today to…look at the painting Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West. This rather large painting painted in 1770 changed the genre of history painting.  First off this thing is MASSIVE. It measures 4 feet 11 inches by 7 feet! Second, this painting was SO popular that it ended up on everything from tea cups, dinner plates, bowls, and prints to tea towels!  Even king George the third wanted a copy (which of course West did for him)[1].The painting was so popular that West painted up to 4 versions of the painting. The battle depicted is the Battle of Quebec of the French and Indian wars (or the seven years war, if that is what you prefer). The battle was between the British and the French and was very short (fifteen minutes to be exact[2]). The British troops, lead by General Wolfe, held their ground for most of the battle until Wolfe was shot by a musket several times. But wait… that’s not in the painting… Exactly!

This is not how General Wolfe died in battle. In fact, he died as previously stated–by musket wounds, under a tree[3]. Not very heroic…and that’s exactly what West thought when painting the painting. As many scholars have claimed, West was going for more of a believable painting then an accurate one[4].  Now, this is not just a history painting, but a mish-mash of genres such as portraiture, landscape, and religious (I will get to that in a second, hold on)[5]. These were incorporated in order to make the painting more believable to the viewers.

But I am getting sidetracked, so back to the depiction of the general’s death. Here we see General Wolfe draped over his comrades arm. Look familiar? It should — it is a variation of the pose of Christ coming off the cross. But where is the cross? It’s the British flag above him, symbolizing his martyrdom for England.  He is also highlighted very heavily by a light source that could be the heavenly light, which is seen in the middle of the clouds. This is a much more dramatic death than dying under a tree.

Now, one of the other methods West used in order to appeal to his contemporary audience was to dress the general and his colleagues in contemporary 1770’s clothing. This was not a mistake; by making the subjects in modern dress, it became more relatable to the viewer, who was not at the battle and did not know the attire. This can be seen in General Wolfe’s jacket, which has a panel between the double breasted buttons, whereas his other military uniform (See his portrait here) does have a panel, but it is holding the buttons, not under the buttons.  The figure in the far right has a more accurate representation of military attire at the battle, but it is still stylized to the modern audience.

Now here is a little interesting tidbit: General Wolfe died before the battle ended. This is accurately depicted in the painting. How, you ask? It is a simple detail tucked away in the mid-ground of the painting. On the far left hand side of the painting, there is a figure carrying either a torch or a scroll; that object is news that the battle is over and that Wolfe had won. The problem is that the figure is too late to tell General Wolfe the news. Now, this battle was a result of a three month siege,[6] so having the battle be over and that the British won was, in fact, big news, but General Wolfe would not know, as he died before the message was given to him[7]. The figure seems to be a British soldier, but this changes, it appears, from copy to copy of the painting. But, in the original, it seems to be a fellow British soldier.

Now, there is one thing in this painting that scholars are always debating: the significance of the Native American figure on the left hand side of the painting. It is not known if West had any interactions with the Native Americans, but he was always fascinated with the Native Americans by his childhood home in Pennsylvania[8]. History tells us there were, in fact, no Native Americans involved in the fighting of the Battle of Quebec; so why include one in the painting? It comes down to three things: Exoticism, Representation, and History. One of the theories scholars have come up with is that the Native American was included in order to emphasize the new world and its “exotic” indigenous culture[9].  This was also put in for King George III, who wanted the painting to have a “New World Feel.” And so, the Native American was placed in order to appease the King. Now, another reason for the inclusion of the Native American was that of representation. Although there were no Native Americans present at the battle, they were in the surrounding lands[10]. West, by including the Native American, made sure that the population effected by the battle had their fair share of recognition.  West was also fascinated by the Native American’s relationship to nature and storytelling, so one theory presented by scholars is that West included the Native American as a witness to the history of the land and to record it for generations to come as the blood was spilled on the land. There are many mysteries surrounding the Native American in the painting, and so the debate continues.

As a painting of historical and cultural significance, the Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West is certainly a painting that will be discussed for generations of scholars to come.

Further Reading

Hot Stuff: James Wolfe and King George’s Army

Behold the Hero: General Wolfe and the Arts in the Eighteenth Century

Imagined Battles: Reflections of War in European Art

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