Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Benjamin West - Death of General Wolfe at Quebec

Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770
(National Gallery of Canada)

When Benjamin West exhibited The Death of General Wolfe, at the Royal Academy in London, it caused a controversy.  Even though George III liked West and owned 65 of his paintings, he was advised by Sir Joshua Reynolds not to purchase it. The dispute was over the clothing of the protagonists.

The painting depicts the moment General Wolfe dies at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, a  battle that took place in 1759, between France and Britain over Quebec. General Wolfe is aware of British Victory before he dies, making his a death worthy of the cause.  West had used the traditional pyramidal composition with the flag being the top of the pyramid and placed General Wolfe and the surrounding figures in a pose that recalled the Lamentation of Christ, but he had depicted the figures of a history painting in contemporary garb. Up until now, the figures in history paintings had always appeared in  antique armor, as a matter of fact, West was asked to change the clothing but he refused. To add insult to injury, he also had General Wolfe in a very plain uniform.  There was also the problem of the fictitious American Indian, in the front of the picture plain who is sitting by the group in deep thought, observing the two countries fighting over a land that belonged to the natives.  This may be a reference to the noble savage Rousseau had written about, who happens to be much simpler and more virtuous than those corrupted by all the vices of modern society. 

Benjamin West, took a contemporary heroic subject and represented it realistically for an 18th century English audience as a history painting, which was at the top of the hierarchy for genres of painting.  With this bold work, he proved that heroism and sacrifice might be noble enough to not warrant costumes from another era in the depiction of historical events worthy or painting.

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