Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Wolfe, Quebec and Benjamin West's iconic painting the Death of General Wolfe

Detail, Benjamin West, The death of General Wolfe, Oil on Canvass, 1770

Back in  2012 (Indian Mutiny 3 - the Company) I referred to the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), in some ways the first truly global war. The North American theatre of that war is often referred to as the French and Indian War.

This map from Wikipedia (link above) shows territorial claims by Britain, France, and Spain, as well as disputed territory before the war. The British victory in North America removed the French from the equation and also gave the British control of Florida.

Mind you, the French could have maintained their  territory, but in the peace negotiations they largely traded off their North American claims

The British had offered France the choice of surrendering either its continental North American possessions east of the Mississippi or the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, which had been occupied by the British. France chose to cede the former because the Caribbean  islands were seen to be of greater economic value! France was able to negotiate the retention of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, two small islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, along with fishing rights in the area.

One of the most critical battles in the North American conflict was the Battle of Quebec, also known as the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.  After a protracted but unsuccessful siege,  the British commander James Wolfe led 4,400 men in small boats on a very bold and risky amphibious landing at the base of the cliffs west of Quebec along the St. Lawrence River.

This group with two small cannons scaled the 200-metre cliff from the river below early in the morning of 13 September 1759. They surprised the French under the command of the Marquis de Montcalm, who thought the cliff would be unclimbable, and had set his defences accordingly. Faced with the possibility that the British would haul more cannons up the cliffs and knock down the city's remaining walls, the French fought the British on the Plains of Abraham. They were defeated after fifteen minutes of battle, but when Wolfe began to move forward, he was shot three times, once in the arm, once in the shoulder, and finally in the chest, dying on the field. Montcalm too was badly wounded, dying shortly afterwards.

Wolfe's death after such a heroic assault and victory made him a British hero.In 1770, painter Benjamin West memorialised the death in a painting, The death of General Wolfe. The painting attracted some controversy because it replaced previous stylised heroic approaches based on classical forms with apparent realism. However, it quickly became one of the most iconic and popular Imperial images.

This Youtube video from the National Gallery of Canada came via Artdaily. It provides more detail on on the painting itself.


Anonymous said...

It *is* a wonderful painting; I like the sky (except for the steeple - which seems excessive, and also maybe well out to sea?) and the colour mix (which doesn't mix, but does) and the video analysis was very good - but I was waiting on her to explain that hat/headwear? in the right foreground? I just can't see who that fits - as it were.

Something about the skin tones and exuberant colours reminds me of Raphael for some reason, but I'm such a barbarian.

Thanks Jim. Great post for further research - by me, not you :)


Jim Belshaw said...

It's actually a very crowded painting when you look at the detail, not all of which can be seen in the excerpt included at the top of the posts. That comes through much more clearly in the YouTube video.I suspect the hat belongs to the chap on the far right.I'm glad that you enjoyed it!

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