With his masterpiece The Death of General Wolfe, painted in 1770, Benjamin West (1738-1820) disrupted the tradition and caused a great sensation in the Royal Academy. But not all appreciations were possitive.
James Wolfe (1727-1759) was a tragic hero. During the Seven Years War, he had defeated the French at the battle of Plaines d’Abraham in 1758. He died victorious at the end of that military encounter. Nobody could deny he was a very important character for the glory of recent British Empire’s history. Thus, the depiction of his death could not be the depiction of any given event.
West solved the scene compressing it in one only crucial moment, an epic and culminating one: the actual death of the famous general. But even though the death of the hero is the center of the painting, some other important details of the event are there to enhance the scene: the landing of British troops from the San Lorenzo River, the flight of the French and the death of the commander of his troops, General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm. The presence of a native from North American tribes remind us that it happened in the New World and not the Old nor the Ancient.
It is clear that it is absurd to think about the moment of General Wolfe’s death as depicted by West, all surrounded by its officials. They must have been busy in the heat of the battle after all. However, West bet to the presentation of the central key group as the most known iconographic group of the Pietá. He used the models of the tradition but in a renewed way, nurturing their significance. In fact, in this painting, General Wolfe stopped being a simple war hero to become a martyr of the British cause and it would be maximized by the thousands of engraving reproductions that circulated in England and out its borders.
But this used of the traditional types was not the cause of the astonishment this painting woke up in some members of the Royal Academy. What displeased them, including Joshua Reynolds (president), was the way West decided to dress the main characters of the scene. West chose to dress them as they would have dressed at the time of the event itself, with appropriate military uniforms. But the custom stipulated that the great deeds should be executed by men dressed in the style of classical antiquity. The controversy was enormous, because, according to the custom, West had degraded not only painting, but the tragic moment itself.
When West got the scene closer to its present reality, he would have made it prosaic and vulgar. The greatness seemed then only in a timeless past, that is, classic times. But the public was fascinated by the new quality of ‘being there’ that provided this painting. To West it seems that the same truth that guides the pen of the historian should rule the artist’s brush. Nevertheless, the scene that this painter created is very far from the historical truth and it should be expected due to the already described plastic solution.
In any case, the recognition of the reality depicted in the pictorial surface had begun and in a different way from that seen before. If in The Surrender of Breda (1634), for example, Diego de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660) presented a completely and utterly contemporary scene, it was done with all the poise and the appropriate solemnity. West, however, mythologizes a contemporary event, raising it to the level of classical or biblical history without that looks of a classical or biblical event. Thus, the event shows the British Empire represented as a providential mission, predestined and unstoppable.
[Original Writing ©]