Benjamin West's The Death of General Wolfe: Interpreting The Lamentation

Reads: 3935  | Likes: 1  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Benjamin West (1738-1820) The Death Of General Wolfe, 1770
West creates a focal point out of General Wolfe as the subject of the painting by making him almost appear Christ-like in his pose and appearance, more commonly know as the lamentation of Christ. Why did he made such an obvious reference to Christ with Wolfe’s appearance? In previous lamentations and depositions of Christ’s death in most artworks of the past few centuries, Christ had always been portrayed in vivid color, bright light, and in the pose of a crucifix to help the viewer identify the subject of the painting and for illiterate religious patrons to help worship. By portraying General Wolfe as a Martyr for England, West either mistakenly, mockingly, or intentionally portrayed General Wolfe’s supposed sacrifice like the Lamentation of Christ, and like in so many other artworks that did not depict Christ under the intended portrayal guidelines there were consequences for that portrayal.

 

 

 

 

 

UTAH VALLEY UNIVERSITY

 

 

BENJAMIN WEST’S THE DEATH OF GENERAL WOLFE: INTERPRETING THE LAMENTATION

 

BY

JOHN MOORE

 

 

 

 

 

ART3100: SCHOLARLY HISTORICAL RESEARCH PAPER

HISTORY OF AMERICAN ART & ARCHITECTURE

6  DECEMBER  2014

 

 

 

BENJAMIN WEST’S THE DEATH OF GENERAL WOLFE: INTERPRETING THE LAMENTATION

 

Since the dawn of time and the noble art of painting was first conceived, there have been innumerable depictions of religious subjects in art. These artworks now serve as a testament to the loyalty and faith of those who have immortalized these important historical figureheads. From the mosaics of the 6th century all the way to the masters of the renaissance and beyond, religious connotations have flourished and now make up a decent percentage of artworks we now consider to be the world’s greatest masterpieces. Ever since the death of the philosopher Jesus Christ, Christianity has sought to impress upon its followers that he died for each and every human being, suffering pain and torment for our sins. Now whether or not you believe that Christ was the son of God is purely a matter of opinion, but no one can argue with the beauty these devout Christians have instilled in their depictions of Christ.

Since even before the 14th century, Christian and Catholic churches have set strict guidelines as to how the image of Christ was allowed to be shown. Any straying from these guidelines would result in severe punishments from the church, including excommunication. After a few centuries, the restrictions set on Christ’s image were more lenient and artists began using symbolism and metaphor to depict Christ or a Christ like figure. One of the artists who incorporated this type of metaphoric symbolism was Benjamin West (1738-1820). In West’s The Death Of General Wolfe, 1770 (see fig.1) West creates a focal point out of General Wolfe as the subject of the painting by making him almost appear Christ-like in his pose and appearance, more commonly know as the lamentation of Christ. Why did he made such an obvious reference to Christ with Wolfe’s appearance? In previous lamentations and depositions of Christ’s death in most artworks of the past few centuries, Christ had always been portrayed in vivid color, bright light, and in the pose of a crucifix to help the viewer identify the subject of the painting and for illiterate religious patrons to help worship. By portraying General Wolfe as a Martyr for England, West either mistakenly, mockingly, or intentionally portrayed General Wolfe’s supposed sacrifice like the Lamentation of Christ, and like in so many other artworks that did not depict Christ under the intended portrayal guidelines there were consequences for that portrayal.application.pdf\"

(Fig. 1) Benjamin West, The Death Of General Wolfe, 1770. Oil on Canvas, 59 in x 84 in.

Benjamin West was an American Painter who when he was 22 years old studied abroad in Italy to learn the secrets of master artists like Michelangelo and Raphael. Trained in this classical style, West took his talents to England three years later with hopes of becoming a successful artist so that he may return to America and share his paintings with the world. Sadly he never went back to his homeland; instead he remained in England the rest of his life. Benjamin West was primarily a historical painter although it is hard to classify him in any specific genre. His success was limited in England until while West was struggling; Robert Hay Drummond, an Archbishop tried to raise money for West to continue his works. After several unsuccessful attempts, Drummond persuaded King George III to patronize West so that he could focus less on portraiture and more on substantial works of art.[1]a

West finally received his big break when King George III commissioned a painting of the Departure of Regulus From Rome, West 1769 (see fig. 2), which the king liked so much that it actually spawned a friendship between him and the king. Benjamin West very soon became a close companion of the king and the two friends had long discussions on the current state of art in England, which ultimately lead to the formation of the Royal Academy in 1768.1b It was at this time and as one of the prominent leaders of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West finished his first painting of The Death of General Wolfe, 1770.

application.pdf\"

Fig.2: Departure of Regulus From Rome, West 1769; Oil on Canvas

In 1759, General James Wolfe died at the Battle of Quebec in the 7 Years War after a 15-minute battle following a three-month siege on French and Canadian troops. Because he was killed in battle, King George III sought to immortalize Wolfe in history as a hero of war and a symbol of military triumph for England.2 West must have taken that ideal to heart when he painted his conceptualization of the Battle of Quebec, and General Wolfe’s last moments. Up to this point in history, historical paintings that portrayed war heroes and generals had usually been depicted with great honor. The classical tradition of painting a national hero usually took the appearance of a knight in shining armor, clad in a suit of iron, sitting atop his horse preparing for the heat of battle.

West turned that tradition on its head when he painted General Wolfe in modern military uniform, bleeding out from bullet wounds on the battlefield, while mourners surround him and his officers try to mend tend to his wounds in a gruesome display that some found shocking.

Though West’s depiction of General Wolfe’s last moments was very stylized and incredibly inaccurate, for he had never even seen Quebec, there still retains a shred of truth in the fact that he painted Wolfe in his military uniform. This did not sit well with some of the King’s associates and caused some controversy. John Galt, a collaborator of Benjamin West’s recounted that “The King mentioned that he heard much of the picture, but he was informed that the dignity of the subject had been impaired by the latter circumstance; observing that it was thought very ridiculous to exhibit heroes in coats, breeches, and cock'd hats.”[2] Benjamin West had been aware of the scrutiny his depiction was receiving, but said that it was a matter of prejudice against him, when asked about this prejudice West gave this anecdote to the King: “When it was understood that I intended to paint the characters as they had actually appeared in the scene, the Archbishop of York called on Reynolds and asked his opinion, the result of which was that… Reynolds wished to dissuade me from running so great a risk. I could not but feel highly gratified by so much solicitude, and acknowledged myself ready to attend to whatever Reynolds had to say, and even to adopt his advice, if it appeared to me founded on any proper principles. Reynolds then began a very ingenious and elegant dissertation on the state of the public taste in this country, and the danger which every attempt at innovation necessarily incurred of repulse or ridicule; and he concluded with urging me earnestly to adopt the classic costume of antiquity, as much more becoming the inherent greatness of my subject than the modern garb of war. I listened to him with the utmost attention in my power to give, but could perceive no principle in what he had delivered; only a strain of persuasion to induce me to comply with an existing prejudice, — a prejudice which I thought could not be too soon removed.

” …When he had finished his discourse, I begged him to hear what I had to state in reply, and I began by remarking that the event intended to be commemorated took place on the 13th of September, 1758, in a region of the world unknown to the Greeks and Romans, and at a period of time when no such nations, nor heroes in their costume, any longer existed. The subject I have to represent is the conquest of a great province of America by the British troops. 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 to 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! The only reason for adopting the Greek and Roman dresses, is the picturesque forms of which their drapery is susceptible; but is this an advantage for which all the truth and propriety of the subject should be sacrificed? I want to mark the date, the place, and the parties engaged in the event; and if I am not able to dispose of the circumstances in a picturesque manner, no academical distribution of Greek or Roman costume will enable me to do justice to the subject. However, without insisting upon principles to which I intend to adhere, I feel myself so profoundly impressed with the friendship of this interference, that when the picture is finished, if you do not approve of it, I will consign it to the closet, whatever may be my own opinion of the execution. They soon after took their leave, and in due time I called on the Archbishop, and fixed a day with him to come with Reynolds to see the painting. They came accordingly, and the latter without speaking, after his first cursory glance, seated himself before the picture, and examined it with deep and minute attention for about half an hour. He then rose, and said to His Grace, Mr. West has conquered. He has treated his subject as it ought to be treated. I retract my objections against the introduction of any other circumstances into historical pictures than those which are requisite and appropriate; and I foresee that this picture will not only become one of the most popular, but on occasion a revolution in the arts.”[3]

West continued to make his argument to the King for many more pages before King George interrupted and said, “I wish that I had known all this before, for the objection has been the means of Lord Grosvenor getting the picture; but you shall make a copy for me.”[4] King George III ended up refusing to buy the painting from West because Wolfe’s clothing invalidated the dignity of his death.

Benjamin West’s fought to preserve the integrity of his artwork, justifying his representations, however when you actually look at the painting West accomplished, you cannot help but ask yourself how far fetched his representations are. In the painting, you can see how traditional, Benjamin West was still trying to be, with classical proportions that are eerily reminiscent of Sandro Botticelli’s Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, 1490-92 (see figure 3).

application.pdf\"

(Figure 3) Sandro Botticelli’s Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, 1490-92, Tempera on Pastel 55 in × 81 in

It’s blatantly obvious that General Wolfe is the subject and main focal point of the composition. Wearing a British officer’s uniform, we see Wolfe in the center of a triangular composition framed by the banner as the top and then slanting diagonally towards the ground, following the men on either side for direction. The upright triangle shape is historically a symbol of masculinity due to its strong solid base, whereas the upside down triangle is a symbol for fertility and femininity. This is an interesting shape for West to frame the subject in, because not only is it indicative of the Lamentation of Christ where typically, Mary the mother of Christ holds Christ’s body after being taken down from the cross, but it also is the same shape used to frame Christ’s figure in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, 1520.  There is further evidence of West’s depiction of General Wolfe as a Christ figure in the way his arms are laying straight away from him, forming the undeniable shape of a cross. That accompanied by his 12, (Count them) Twelve fellow officers (Disciples) and two native Americans; who one can only assume is in the composition to make it seem like there were men on both sides mourning his loss; makes General Wolfe out to seem like a Christ-like figure for if Christ was humble, pure and a martyr for a worth-while cause—then Wolfe also was an innocent martyr. In actuality, West depicted General Wolfe not as a simple war hero but instead a deified martyr for the England’s salvation.

Its not uncommon for native countrymen to idolize heroes of war, but it seems strange that an American painter, would stylize General Wolfe’s death to the point where even King George III questioned its arrogance; in a time when America was in turmoil because of England’s tyranny. In Emanuel Leutze’s, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, he idealized General Washington to the point of patriotic erotica with just as many historical inaccuracies as Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe; for example, 14 men are positioned around Wolfe with clear identities, but only 4 of them were actually at the Battle of Quebec.[5] West clearly took liberties at the expense of General Wolfe’s memory, but that begs the question, was it an intentional use of historical embellishment to please the King? Was it done to mock portrait artists of the time in England? Or was it simply painted exactly how West wanted General Wolfe to be immortalized?

We know from personal accounts that even King George III thought it was a bit much. And its hard to believe West would jeopardize his new position as painter to the king and later the President of the Royal Academy, so that really only leaves one option. Artists such as James Barry and his Death of General Wolfe painting done in 1775 (see Fig. 4) depicted the same event in a more true-to-life style that was more representative of the American style of art at the time, even though he was Irish. In essence, Benjamin West intentionally painted his composition as an intense, dramatic showstopper. This act, whether West knew it at the time or not, sowed the seeds that would change historical painting forever. With his precision detail and his conceptual idealization, many artists would come to imitate his technical styles in England and America.

application.pdf\"

James Barry, The Death of General Wolfe, 1775-1776, Oil on Canvas, 148.6 cm x 236.2 cm

In conclusion, Benjamin West exhibited the absolute best in historical painting and is quite possibly the greatest American painter to have ever existed. Though his depiction of General Wolfe as a Christ figure in a modern military uniform put a crimp in his career path, it still remains to this day one of the most spectacular historical paintings of war to ever be created. West still went on to paint incredible works of portrait art for the royal family and was even offered a knighthood, but turned it down. He remained President of the Royal Academy of Art all the way to his death in 1820.  Benjamin West like General Wolfe will forever be immortalized by their incredible contributions to history.

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

PRIMARY SOURCES

  • Galt, John: The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West Esq. President of the Academy of London Publisher: T. Cadell and W. Davies. (1820) aPage 33, b44

 

  • Galt, John: The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West Esq. President of the Academy of London Publisher: T. Cadell and W. Davies. (1820) Page 45-48

 

  • Galt, John: The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West Esq. President of the Academy of London Publisher: T. Cadell and W. Davies. (1820) Page 49

 

  • Fryd, Vivian Green, “Rereading the Indian in Benjamin West's "Death of General Wolfe “Published by: The University of Chicago Press, 1995

 

  • Montagna, Dennis: “Benjamin West's The Death of General Wolfe: A Nationalist Narrative” Published by: Kennedy Galleries, Inc. Article DOI: 10.2307/1594250

 

  • Rather, Susan, Benjamin West, John Galt, and the Biography of 1816, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 86, No. 2 (Jun., 2004), pp. 324-345; Published by: College Art Association

 

SECONDARY SOURCES

  • Zygmont, Bryan. "Benjamin West's The Death of General Wolfe." Published: Zygmon, Bryan. Khan Academy, Smart History, 2013

 

  • "West, Benjamin," Dictionary of National Biography, London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885

 

  • “West, Benjamin,” Encyclopedia of World Biography | 2004 | COPYRIGHT 2004 The Gale Group Inc.

 

  • Mitchell, Charles Benjamin West's "Death of General Wolfe" and the Popular History Piece” Published by: The Warburg Institute; Article DOI: 10.2307/750377
 

[1] John Galt: The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West Esq. President of the Academy of London Publisher: T. Cadell and W. Davies. (1820) aPage 33, b44

[2] John Galt: The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West Esq. President of the Academy of London Publisher: T. Cadell and W. Davies. (1820) Page 45

[3] John Galt: The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West Esq. President of the Academy of London Publisher: T. Cadell and W. Davies. (1820) Page 46-48

[4] John Galt: The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West Esq. President of the Academy of London Publisher: T. Cadell and W. Davies. (1820) Page 49

[5] Rather, Susan, Benjamin West, John Galt, and the Biography of 1816, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 86, No. 2 (Jun., 2004), pp. 324-345; Published by: College Art Association

 


Submitted: December 15, 2014

© Copyright 2021 John Moore. All rights reserved.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Add Your Comments:


Facebook Comments