In The Death of General Wolfe, West depicts the pivotal Battle of the Plains of Abraham, also known as the Battle of Quebec, which occurred on September 13, 1759, during the French and Indian War. The General lies dying, surrounded by two groups of soldiers and the Union Jack flag, evoking a Christ-like image at the center of the composition. The formal arrangement is reminiscent of traditional religious scenes like The Lamentation or The Descent from the Cross. Instead of apostles, high-ranking friends of Wolfe, one of whom unrealistically wipes the General's bloodless chest with a white cloth, are present in the foreground. Although designated as a history painting, only one of the identifiable men - flag bearer Lieutenant Brown - was actually present at Wolfe's death. A Native American warrior in traditional dress kneels in the foreground, embodying both Romantic ideals of the "noble savage" and reminding English viewers of Native American and colonial aid during the war.
The muted, less-defined background provides theatrical depth while focusing the viewer's attention on the scene. The British fleet on the St. Lawrence River is visible in the distance, and smoke from gunfire creates a dramatic cloudscape. As the smoke clears on the left, a cathedral spire and blue sky appear, symbolizing hope.
The work is considered a "blockbuster" due to its narrative abundance and a "breakthrough" in formal innovations. At the time, history paintings did not depict current events, and heroes did not wear contemporary dress. West went against professional advice from Joshua Reynolds, arguing that the same truth that guides the historian should govern the artist's pencil. Despite his rebellion, the piece was successful with the public, and William Woollett's engraving found a broad commercial audience. West painted five more versions, one of which King George III hung in his private collection. The Death of General Wolfe revolutionized history painting and influenced painters such as John Trumbull and John Singleton Copley. According to art historian Loyd Grossman, it is one of the first great modern pieces if modernity is understood as the will to "heroize" the present, in Michel Foucault's words.
The Death of General Wolfe is a well-known 1770 painting by Anglo-American artist Benjamin West depicting the death of British General James Wolfe at the 1759 Battle of Quebec during the French and Indian War (which was the North American theater of the Seven Years' War). It is an oil on canvas of the Enlightenment period. West made an additional and nearly identical painting of the same scene for George III of the United Kingdom in 1771.
The Death of General Wolfe depicts the Battle of Quebec, also known as the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, on September 13, 1759. This was a pivotal event in the Seven Years' War and decided the fate of France's colonies in North America.
The battle was fought between the British Navy and Army and the French Army lasting only fifteen minutes. The British Army was commanded by General Wolfe. Though successful in holding the British line against the French and winning the battle, General Wolfe was killed by several musket wounds.
In death, General Wolfe gained fame as a national hero and became an icon of the Seven Years' War and British dominance in late eighteenth century North America.
West depicts General Wolfe as a Christ-like figure. This painting has a triangular composition, made by the top of the flag (as the apex) and the positions of the men. It resembles Christian "Lamentation" scenes, where Christ is held in the embrace of the Virgin Mary.
Captain Hervey Smythe is pictured holding Wolfe's right arm.
The depiction of the Indigenous warrior in the painting—kneeling with his chin on his fist, looking at General Wolfe—has been analyzed in various ways. In art, the touching of one's face with one's hand is a sign of deep thought and intelligence (thus Rodin's The Thinker). Some consider it an idealization inspired by the noble savage concept (Fryd, 75). Original items of clothing that were used as a model for portraying the warrior in the painting can be found in the British Museum's collection (as well as additional First Nation artefacts used in other paintings by West).
On the ground in front of Wolfe are his musket, cartridge box, and bayonet. Wolfe went into battle armed as his men were, although his musket was of higher quality. His dress is also of note. He is wearing a red coat, a red waistcoat, red breeches, and a white shirt. Such dress was rather simple, especially for a commanding officer.
Next to Wolfe, in the blue jacket, is Dr Thomas Hinde, who is attempting to stem the bleeding from Wolfe's wounds. The general later died in the doctor's hands.
In the background, and to the left of the men surrounding Wolfe, an approaching runner is depicted. He is waving his hat in one hand to attract their attention, and with the other hand carries a captured flag with the Fleur-de-lis (a symbol of France)—symbolic of the news relayed to the dying Wolfe that the French were being defeated.
The inclusion of Simon Fraser, Lieutenant Colonel of the 78th Fraser Highlanders (behind the man in green uniform, identified in the painting as Sir William Johnson) is interesting, as General Wolfe had always spoken highly of Fraser's regiment, yet Fraser was not at the battle, as he was recovering from wounds received earlier. In the painting, Fraser wears the Fraser tartan, which was probably worn by officers in that regiment. All in all only four of the fourteen men depicted were actually at the battleground.
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