Painting, The Death of Wolfe

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  • Artist: Unidentified
  • London, England
  • 1770-1774
  • Oil on Canvas
  • 1960-668

Most Americans realize the importance of the Revolutionary War that effected their country's freedom from British rule. Far fewer acknowledge the earlier, equally critical French and Indian War, whose outcome essentially made North America a British, rather than a French, colony.

In 1759, the battle for control of Canada's capital of Quebec became the war's pivotal engagement. British forces captured the city, but their commander, General James Wolfe (1727-1759), was mortally wounded in the conflict, instantly becoming a martyred hero in Britain. Several painters in England immortalized Wolfe's death on the field, including James Barry, Edward Penny, George Romney, and American ex-patriot Benjamin West.

Until then, painters generally had emphasized the monumentality, universality, and timelessness of important events by showing their protagonists --- even contemporary ones --- in ancient Greek or Roman attire. West flaunted this tradition by depicting Wolfe and the figures around him in modern-day garb, a departure that created a sensation and contributed to the work's iconic status in the development of history painting. Yet West deliberately compromised other details, such as the number and identities of the men who witnessed Wolfe's demise, because his goal was an emotionally charged, convincing picture, not necessarily an historically accurate one.

In a factual sense, Colonial Williamsburg's picture is more realistic than West's. While some details of the uniforms are inaccurate for the specific occasion, credible 1750s regimental dress is recorded, not togas and sandals. Moreover, military scholars generally agree that this composition and cast of characters accord more closely with eyewitness accounts than do West's. The painter's obscurity is therefore especially regrettable. One James Williams exhibited a depiction of the death of Wolfe at the Free Society of Artists in London in 1774. The picture displayed here may be Williams's, but because so few examples of this artist's work have been located for stylistic comparisons, the possibility remains speculative.

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