Thank you all for coming today to commemorate… wait, we are not at another funeral! We are looking at the Death of General Montgomery by John Trumbull in 1786. Now you may remember Monday’s post about the death of General Wolfe and that in depth analysis (see that post here), but did you ever think about its impact on painting? Well, you came to the right place! It has been documented by the wonderful historians at Monticello (Check them out here) that this painting has heavy influence from the Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West! To the point that west encouraged him.
Let us begin, shall we? Let me pull up the two pictures side by side
There we go! much better! Now to look at the similarities. Let us start with the most historically important. In the Death of General Wolfe the battle was in the siege of Quebec, in the Death of General Montgomery the battle was – you guessed it- in Quebec. Although the battle was an unsuccessful takeover of the city by the American general Montgomery, his heroics in previous battles was worth commemoration. So, Trumbull turned to the popular Death of General Wolfe for inspiration. What’s interesting here is that Montgomery is pictured dying under a tree, which was fictional to his death but was accurate to Wolfe’s death. Both generals did die of gunshot wounds, but Montgomery died with a grapeshot through the head, which would have destroyed his skull and been much messier than what is depicted in the painting. But, when looking at the two paintings, there are striking resemblances.
Beginning the similarities is the harsh spotlight on the dying General. General Montgomery is draped elegantly, being held up by two fellow soldiers on the snow covered battlefield, his face and body illuminated by a harsh light coming from the heavens. Sound familiar? It should. Now, Benjamin west was not the first painter in the world to use a harsh heavenly light to spotlight a subject, but he was one of the first to make it front and canter in a history painting. Trumbull followed suit, highlighting Montgomery, trying to capture his soul leaving for heaven, a much deserved reward. The religious iconography does not stop there! Remember the general being draped over the arms of his fellow soldiers? Another solid Christ like image of Jesus coming off the cross, signifying the General’s sacrifice for the American people. West did the same thing but for the British. But where is the cross, you ask? In the fashion of West, Trumbull used the flag of battle as representation of the cross. Where is the flag? Right behind the General. The only difference is that it is not the flag of a nation but rather a battle flag.
One of the most interesting similarities between the paintings is the inclusion of a Native American in the painting. The Native Americans in each painting share elements such as a hatchet, feathers, fringes on their clothes, and a leather bag. But there is one HUGE difference; In Death of General Wolfe, the Native American is looking directly at the general as a witness of the death, but here, in Death of General Montgomery, the Native American is looking away from the general and focusing on the battle that continues around them. But, once again, there were no Native Americans present at the battle; so why include one? The only conclusion I could come up with in my own research of this painting is that it was because West put one in his painting. Scholars have argued that the reason ranges from representation to a thank you for help in the Revolutionary War.
But what did Trumbull do that was NOT copying West? Well there are a few things. For starters, he was more historically accurate, as Montgomery’s death happened during the battle, not after, and this is seen in his painting by the three soldiers pausing from fighting to witness the death. But, unlike West, Trumbull kept his figures in clothing that is historically accurate to the battle rather than contemporary dress. By putting the figures in historically accurate clothing, Trumbull made it more of a recording of an event while West made it a snapshot of an event for everyone. But one of the biggest differences is that Trumbull got his ideas from someone else other than West. Yes, John Singleton Copley did a Death painting in his Death of Chatham (see that painting here), and Trumbull was influenced by it. While West did not have a direct influence for his painting, Trumbull was unique as he had two.
What do you see that I may have missed? I’m fascinated to hear below!
Also the answer to Trivia Tuesday was: Salvador Dali!! Thank you for everyone who participated!
I am on vacation tomorrow, but I’ll be back Friday!
The Art Historian