If you know one of Benjamin West’s paintings, it is The Death of General Wolfe, which he made in 1770. Many will no doubt recognise this painting but not its creator.
A battle that won a war
This shows a scene from an almost uniquely brief battle between British and French forces on 13 September 1759, which lasted only an hour or so. At the end of their three months seige of the French city of Quebec, Canada, British forces under the command of General Wolfe were preparing to take the city by force. The French attacked the British line on a plateau just outside the city.
Within minutes, General Wolfe suffered three gunshot wounds, and died quickly from them. The French commander, General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, was also hit by a musket ball, and died the following morning. The British line held, and the French were forced to evacuate the city, which ultimately led to France ceding most of its possessions in North America to Britain, in the Treaty of Paris of 1763. Wolfe’s death was quickly seen as the ultimate sacrifice of a commander in securing victory.
West’s painting shows three groups, arranged in a line across the foreground. On the ground in the middle of the central group is the dying General Wolfe, supported by two of his staff officers, and being tended by a military surgeon (in blue). Arranged almost ceremonially in front of him are his weapon and hat.
At the left is a group of six people, predominantly military, with a native American (First Nation) man sitting in front. They are all looking intently at the dying general. At the right is a smaller group, of only two military personnel, also looking on intently.
In the background there are scenes of a battlefield packed with combatants. In the centre distance is the city of Quebec, with palls of smoke rising from and around it. To the right there are several warships in the river, apparently at anchor and with their sails stowed.
Wolfe’s central group has common compositional features with scenes painted of the crucifixion of Christ, and is often considered to be modelled after a ‘Lamentation’ or pietà, although there are obvious differences in the people present (the Marys are central), their positions (there are commonly figures at the foot, and cradling the upper body), and most significantly in the fact that, at that stage, Christ’s body is limp and lifeless.
The making of the painting
Accounts of the painting of this work, largely in much later recollection by West himself, frame this as his key work, both in terms of his own career and its impact on art. West had set out to be a great history painter, and he considered that this was the work of his which transformed history painting.
Much of this centres on West’s choice of a subject from very recent history, and his claim that he was put under pressure by Joshua Reynolds to dress its figures in classical Roman clothing. In Galt’s biography of West, he gives these words as being West’s own:
When it was understood that I intended to paint the characters as they had actually appeared in the scene, the Archbishop of York called on Reynolds and asked his opinion, the result of which was that they came together to my house.
West is reported as saying that Reynolds concluded with urging me earnestly to adopt the classic costume of antiquity, as much more becoming the inherent greatness of my subject than the modern garb of war.
To this West responded:
I began by remarking that the event intended to be commemorated took place on the 13th of September, 1758, [actually 1759] in a region of the world unknown to the Greeks and Romans, and at a period of time when no such nations, nor heroes in their costume, any longer existed. The subject I have to represent is the conquest of a great province of America by the British troops. It is a topic that history will proudly record, and the same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil of the artist.
When Reynolds inspected the completed painting, Galt quotes West as saying that Reynolds remarked:
I foresee that this picture will not only become one of the most popular, but occasion a revolution in the art.
This is the stuff that legends are made of, and if you look at almost any account of West’s career and this painting, you will see those words echoed down, almost unquestioned, over the last two hundred years. Thankfully the more critical examinations, such as Loyd Grossman’s recent study based on his PhD thesis, are a little less accepting.
Did history painters put everyone in togas?
The simple answer is no, of course they didn’t. There is a figurative truth underlying this, though, in that non-religious narrative paintings as a whole were overwhelmingly made of classical subjects, particularly mythology, and scenes from classical histories. But West’s account does not suggest for a moment that Sir Joshua Reynolds (he was knighted in 1769), the first President of the Royal Academy of Arts, objected to West’s proposed subject, only to the dress to be featured.
Whatever West and Reynolds may have thought or said at the time, painting post-classical history, particularly recent battles, was by no means unusual, and invariably used dress which was contemporary to the event depicted.
Francesco Solimena’s painting of The Meeting of Pope Leo and Attila was probably painted early in the eighteenth century, and shows a non-classical historical event which is reputed to have taken place in 452 CE. The dress is distinctly non-classical too.
Jan van Huchtenburgh’s painting of a Cavalry Battle during the Spanish War of Succession shows an event in what must then have been very recent history, the war which took place between 1701-14. Dress is military, and contemporary.
Pieter van Bloemen’s Portrait of Duke of Marlborough and the Earl of Cadogan, British general, at Blenheim was made in 1714, and shows a battle from the same War of Succession which had taken place only ten years earlier. Dress is military, and despite the nobility of those shown, is that which might have been worn on the battlefield rather than for ceremonial pomp.
Pierre Lenfant’s The Battle of Fontenoy, 11 May 1745 was painted only two years after the event, and shows regular military dress, not classical robes.
Closer to home, David Morier’s vivid depiction of The Battle of Culloden was painted in the year that the battle took place, 1746, and yet again shows normal contemporary military dress.
Two paintings had already been made of the death of General Wolfe when West started work on his. One, by Edward Penny, was completed and exhibited in 1763. Because of copyright restrictions I am unable to show you that. Penny made a smaller version in which Wolfe is shown dying in isolation from the battle, which was later turned into the hand-coloured mezzotint below.
Penny’s The Death of General Wolfe at Quebec (September, 1759) clearly shows all concerned in contemporary military dress, and in a composition quite similar to the central group in West’s later painting.
Tragically, George Romney’s version, which was also completed and exhibited in 1763, was taken to India and has vanished since. All the evidence is that it dressed its figures in contemporary military clothing, and employed a central group around the dying Wolfe which was not dissimilar to that in West’s painting.
Quite where Galt, West, and/or Reynolds came by the idea that it might be more proper for a modern history painting to use classical dress is something of a mystery, although Grossman does find limited discussion in some books of advice to artists.
It is also perhaps worth noting that Reynolds had not studied under a notable history painter, and West only seems to have learned informally from Masters who are not well-known for their history painting. The genre itself was not particularly strong during the middle of the eighteenth century, particularly in Britain.
Accuracy of West’s painting
It is often pointed out that, of the figures in West’s painting who have been identified, hardly any of them might have been present at Wolfe’s death, and several definitely could not have been there. Almost immediately after the painting was exhibited, knowledgeable individuals were criticising it for its historical travesties.
Since then, a number of explanations have been manufactured to try to account for the presence of those painted by West. The most obvious case in point is the native ‘Indian’ American sitting in the front. No native Americans fought with the British forces in this battle, a fact which was acknowledged soon after West had completed his painting.
West was not a historian, nor was he educated to have any academic rigour. He was in pursuit of a romantic ambition which he claimed he had held since childhood. The century may have been the Age of Enlightenment, but it was still a period in which objective knowledge was slowly emerging from a murkier past. West painted what he thought conveyed the spirit of the moment, what he thought looked right. And so long as you didn’t ask any questions, it did look right.
Impact of West’s painting
Whether Reynolds ever said that West’s painting would bring about a “revolution in the art”, it did not of course transform history painting, but was part of a process of change which took place during the century from about 1750. West’s success – particularly in securing a commission from the King to paint him a copy, and in subsequent sales of prints – encouraged others to try the same.
John Singleton Copley, who visited West from Boston in 1774, painted The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 in 1783. It shows a young officer who was killed in the defence of the island of Jersey from French invasion in 1781. Like West, Copley’s account differs substantially from historical record. This work was very popular when it was exhibited in 1784, and was also very successful in prints.
John Trumbull was another East Coast artist who travelled to London to visit West, in his case to study under him. Unfortunately he was arrested and imprisoned in error, as the result of a spy scandal that year. West encouraged him to paint scenes of notable deaths on the battlefield, such as The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, December 31, 1775, which he completed in 1786. This shows more obviously its influence in West’s painting.
Trumbull completed The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775 in the same year, another clear derivative from West’s ‘revolution’.
What of West himself?
The following year, West painted The Death of Hyacinth (1771), a remarkably homoerotic account of Ovid’s story from Book 10 of his Metamorphoses, in which the young Hyacinth(us) is struck in the face by his lover Apollo’s discus, dies, and his blood is transformed into the hyacinth flower. You can read a fuller examination of this story in my series on the Metamorphoses.
A strange choice of subject, and a very odd depiction given this supposed revolution, but much more was to come of West yet.
John Galt (1816), The Life and Studies of Benjamin West, prior to his arrival in England. Available for download from archive.org
John Galt (1820), The life, studies, and works of Benjamin West, esq., President of the Royal Academy of London. Available for download from archive.org
Text and other versions of the two volumes are available for download from Project Gutenberg, from which the above quotations are taken.
Loyd Grossman (2015) Benjamin West and the Struggle to be Modern, Merrell. ISBN 978 1 8589 4641 2.