Benjamin West is a well-known American artist who rose to prominence in London during the late 18th century. West painted many historical and religious portraits, but is most famous for painting, “The Death of General Wolfe” (1770; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa). The painting portrays the death of the English General James Wolfe during the French and Indian War (Schama). The painting is considered a milestone in both English and American art due to it’s depiction of a contemporary event and bold use of color. The work is also political with a dramatic composition (Trachtenberg).
West provides the first major depiction of a contemporary historical event in this painting. During this time, history paintings were typically of Bible stories or the classical past. However, West depicted an event that had occurred only seven years before. West was urged not to use modern clothing in the painting because it was believed to distract from the event’s heroism. Urged to paint the figures wearing togas, he refused, writing, “the same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil [paintbrush] of the artist”, indicating the important role he felt art played in relation to history (Zygmont).
The painting reveals West’s political perspective. Wolfe rests at the center, with light casting on him suggesting he is heroic and a British martyr. Schama illustrates this writing, “It was the light that did the trick; a clean, shrewdly directed radiance illuminating the face of the martyr and bathing the grieving expressions of his brother officers in a reflection of impossible holiness.” A Native American’s presence offers a perspective on North America and the New World. A Native American is shown in a pose of contemplation and is peaceful in contrast to paintings of the time that usually showed natives as savages. Also, hidden behind the clouds is the top of a church building which may indicate West advocating for religion and Christianity (Trachtenberg).
The painting incorporates a dramatic style and the bold use of color. In relation to the dramatic style, General Wolfe is painted lying down at the exact moment of his death while several historical subjects attend to him. Yet, only Lieutenant Henry Browne was present at Wolfe’s death (Zygmont). In relation to color, Wolfe and subjects wear bright uniforms of red and green. There are large dark clouds in the sky. A messenger is coming to announce victory at the very moment of Wolfe’s death. The background is filled with battle. The sky is two sharp contrasts, clear and sunny on the left, and dark and gloomy on the right (Trachtenberg). These elements are a further use of color and dramatization. In this work, West rejects the literal writing “Wolfe must not die like a common soldier under a bush,” and “To move the mind there should be a spectacle presented to raise and warm the mind and all should be proportioned to the highest idea conceived of the Hero” (Schama). West’s painting departs from depictions of the same event by previous artists like James Barry whose work was more true to historical facts (Zygmont).
In “The Death of a General”, West redefined historical painting, refusing to rely only on historical facts. His bold use of color, dramatic composition, subject placement, and portrayal of contemporary events was a departure from art typical of his time. However, his work provided a lasting impression on art and historical painting, influencing artists, such as John Trumbull, John Singleton Copley, and Thomas Sully, and gave rise to a wave of contemporary historical paintings that dominated the 18th century (Zygmont).
- Schama, Simon. “Wolfe Must Not Die Like a Common Soldier.” The New York Times, “https://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/12/arts/art-wolfe-must-not-die-like-a-common-soldier.html. Accessed 16 May 2018.
- Trachtenberg, Jack. “The Death of General Wolfe Visual Analysis” Jack Trachtenberg E-Portfolio, “https://jacktrachtenbergwriting100.wordpress.com/2016/12/07/the-death-of-general-wolfe/. Accessed 16 May 2018.
- Zygmont, Bryan. “Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe.” Khan Academy, “https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-americas/british-colonies/colonial-period/a/benjamin-wests-the-death-of-general-wolfe. Accessed 16 May 2018.