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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“Death of General Wolfe” by Benjamin West

"Death of General Wolfe" by Benjamin West

“Death of General Wolfe” by Benjamin West

“Death of General Wolfe” by Benjamin West depicts the death of British General James Wolfe at the 1759 Battle of Quebec during the French and Indian War. This painting captures a pivotal event in the Seven Years’ War that decided the fate of France’s colonies in North America. General Wolfe commanded the British Army and successfully held the British line against the French and won the battle. Unfortunately, General Wolfe was killed by musket wounds.

In death, General Wolfe gained fame as a national hero and became an icon of the Seven Years’ War and British dominance in North America. This image was so popular that West made an identical painting of the same scene for George III of the United Kingdom, one year after this painting. In total, four other additional versions of the Death of General Wolfe were also produced by West.

West is quoted as saying that “Art is the representation of human beauty, ideally perfect in design, graceful and noble in attitude.” This painting is an idealized representation of what would have been a very chaotic battle scene. General Wolfe is portrayed as a Christ-like figure, and the composition resembles Christian “Lamentation” scenes, where Christ is held in the embrace of his followers. Despite the dramatized interpretation of Wolfe’s death and its lack of reality, this painting was groundbreaking for its time.

This painting was Benjamin West most famous, and influential painting. The Death of General Wolfe was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771 and became one of the most frequently reproduced images of the period. West became known for his history paintings, which use expressive figures, colors, and compositional schemes to help the spectator to identify with the scene represented.

Battle of Quebec

The Battle of Quebec was a pivotal battle in the Seven Years’ War which started as a European War. It was also fought in their remote colonies such as the Americas between France and England as colonial powers. In North America, it is referred to as the French and Indian War to distinguish it from the many European conflicts during the war. The Battle of Quebec, which began in 1759, was fought by the British Army and Navy against the French Army, just outside the walls of Quebec City.

After a three-month siege by the British, the actual battle lasted just an hour. British troops successfully resisted the advance of French forces; however, both commanding generals were mortally wounded during the fight. Wolfe received three gunshot wounds and died within minutes of the beginning of the battle. The French general died the next morning after being shot just below his ribs. The French evacuated the city the French forces and their colonial supporters in a weakened position. France ceded most of its possessions in eastern North America to Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris. The battle involved less than a total of 10,000 troops but proved to be a deciding moment in the conflict over the fate of New France, and it eventually led to the creation of Canada.

Did you know?

  • James Wolfe led 7,000 regular troops, 400 officers, and 300 gunners.
  • Wolfe’s troops were supported by a fleet of 49 ships and 140 smaller craft.
  • In preparation for the fleet, James Cook surveyed a large part of the river and channels.
  • Cook’s ship was one of the first ships up the river, sounding the channel and guiding the fleet to its position.
  • Cook’s right hand had significant scars from an injury he sustained in North America in 1764 when a horn of powder he was holding exploded.
  • Cook on formal occasions usually wore a glove to hide the scars of his injury. See Portrait of Captain James Cook

Benjamin West

Benjamin West (1738 – 1820) was a British North American artist, who painted famous historical scenes. West was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, as the tenth child of an innkeeper and his wife. He was entirely self-taught and went on to gain valuable patronage in the American Colonies. Later he toured Europe, eventually settling in London.

The Death of General Wolfe became one of the most frequently reproduced images of the period. West became known for his history paintings, which used expressive figures, colors, and compositional schemes to help the spectator to identify with the scene represented.

He impressed King George III and was mostly responsible for the launch of the Royal Academy, of which he became the second president after Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was appointed historical painter to the court and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures.

He was offered a knighthood but declined it, believing that he should instead be made a peer. West died in London, and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Death of General Wolfe

  • Title:            Death of General Wolfe
  • Artist:          Benjamin West
  • Year:            1770
  • Medium:     Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:151 × 213 cm
  • Museum:    National Gallery of Canada

Benjamin West

Best History Paintings in Museums

Highlights of the National Gallery of Canada

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“Through other people’s faults, wise men correct their own.”
– Canadian Proverb

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Photo Credit: Benjamin West [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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