Monday, December 6, 2010

Death of General Wolfe, Benjamin West 

One can look to Benjamin West’s oil on canvas, The Death of General Wolfe, and immediately notice its keeping with the same endorsement of warfare and the spoils of international conflict. While the title and the painting itself might initially seem to indicate otherwise, it is the glory attached to this scene by the artist that cements this interpretation. West used this canvas to “[depict] the mortally wounded young English commander just after his defeat of the French in the decisive battle of Quebec in 1759, which gave Canada to Great Britain” (Kleiner, 764).  While the side of General Wolfe’s service won, his personal experience was a pyrrhic one.  Like in the Battle of Issus mosaic, there is no bloody detail; in the case of this painting, the havoc of war is even more downplayed as it is simply a blur in the background.  Though West paints a moment of great loss for the British at the death of Wolfe, he glorifies his subject’s sacrifice by first surrounding him with a large group of mourning comrades. Their varied uniforms reveal the different forces and stations of command from which they hail and yet they are all deeply concerned about the welfare of General Wolfe.  At the time of its creation, West’s painting gained criticism for displaying his subjects in their typical war-time garb. During that time, it was “much more becoming [to] the inherent greatness of [one’s] subjects” to dress them in “the classical costume of antiquity” as opposed to the typical war uniforms (Mitchell, 20).  West defended his decision as follows, once again instilling his belief in the importance and heroism of this particular historical event:

“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. I consider myself as undertaking o tell this great event to the eye of the world; but if, instead of the facts of the transaction, I represent classical fictions, how shall I be understood by posterity!...I want to mark the date, the place, and the parties engaged in the event; but if I am not able to dispose of the circumstances in a picturesque manner, no academical distribution of Greeks or Roman costume will enable me to do justice to the subject” (Mitchell, 20-21)
 Secondly, West places Wolfe in a position that immediately summons images of the crucified Jesus being held by the Virgin Mary. By affiliating Wolfe’s death with a Christ-like sacrifice, one can only assume that his cause is a worthy one that must simply be obtained through undesirable means. Through this painting, West represents his view clearly: General Wolfe’s death was a sad casualty of the war, but one that aided the ultimate achievement of a goal that was worth the conflict. It in no way condemns war, but instead glorifies those that lead us into such conflicts, just as The Battle of Issus mosaic.

1 comment:

  1. Don't forget how only a tiny amount of the people around him in the painting were actually there when he died in real life.

    This is one of my favourite paintings, and I'm not ashamed of that, even if it seems to glorify war and is historically inaccurate. It's for technical reasons.