In 1771, amid great fanfare, Benjamin West's painting, The Death of General Wolfe, was unveiled in London. For weeks following, the gallery of the Royal Academy of Art filled with people anxious to view the painting of the fallen hero of Quebec. Not all of the critics were pleased with the work; Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, thought the painting was too specific in its historical details. But King George III loved it—so much so that he named West the official history painter of the royal court.
It was perhaps West's greatest moment. Born in Pennsylvania, he went to Europe in 1760 and then settled in London in 1763. There were just too few opportunities for an artist in colonial America—no art schools of significance and very few generous patrons. For a time he had made a living at home as a limner, a commercial portrait painter. But like most aspiring American artists of the period, he quickly concluded that greater opportunities lay in abroad.
The Death of General Wolfe was not West's first historical painting, but it was his most original to date. His earlier works reflected the classical theories advanced by the Royal Academy, where Reynolds taught his students that in commemorating historical moments they should expose the transcendent truths that lay behind a specific moment in time rather than specific historical details. The particularities of the moment should be ignored in pursuit of the greater message. Thus details of dress and setting were unimportant, even distracting. What mattered were the timeless truths underlying the moment—nobility, virtue, honor, sacrifice—and it was these that should be captured.
For most artists this meant that historical events, no matter when or where they occurred, should be presented in classical forms— heroes dressed in ancient togas, statesmen placed before the Parthenon. Or, as in the case of West's earlier paintings, only classical subjects should be commemorated at all. It was Wolfe's first, more traditional historical painting of Agrippina with the Ashes of Germanicus at Brundisium, celebrating the virtue and heroism of a Roman military widow that had caught the King's attention.
But in commemorating the death of James Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec, West decided to do things differently. He painted Wolfe in contemporary dress, and he depicted the soldiers that surrounded him in uniforms that were carefully researched. This is what Reynolds objected to; he thought all the detail was gaudy and distracting, and suggested that it obscured the message of patriotic sacrifice that the event represented. But apparently the public disagreed, as did the King. As court painter and then president of the Royal Academy, West would repeat the formula introduced here in paintings of Admiral Nelson and William Pitt.
West defended his decision to paint Wolfe in contemporary dress by referring to the obligations of the artist. "The same truth that guides the pen of the historian," he wrote, "should govern the pencil of the artist."7 But his noble, almost saintly rendering of Wolfe suggests he indulged in a bit of artistic license. Tall and skinny, with bug eyes and a weak chin, Wolfe was no Adonis. But he was groomed for command from childhood. Born into a military family, he entered the army at age fourteen and saw combat for the first time at sixteen. After extensive tours on the continent and in Scotland, Wolfe eventually made colonel, but he feared that further promotion was unlikely. Assignment to North America, therefore, provided an opportunity for advancement. By the time he was given command of the forces moving against Quebec in 1759, the outcome of the French and Indian War was largely decided. But still, Quebec stood among the last and most formidable French strongholds—its capture would be a deadly but glorious triumph.
The prospects for glory dimmed, however, in the first months of the siege. The French sat well-provisioned behind their strong city walls—and no matter what West did, they refused to leave the protection of those walls to engage him in the field. For two months, he shelled the city, trying to terrorize the inhabitants into battle, and then he turned his troops loose on the civilian population living outside the city walls. For more than a month his army burned churches and homes in what one of his officers described as "war of the worst shape."8 More than a thousand farms were destroyed and at least one massacre occurred when a group of civilian prisoners and their priest were murdered. Still the French commander, the marquis de Montcalm, refused to take the bait. Reinforcements might come the next spring, he reasoned—or perhaps Wolfe would have to withdraw from his position before the Saint Lawrence iced over for the winter.
And indeed, as the weeks wore on, Wolfe's situation did deteriorate. His officers were disgusted by his brutal tactics and his men suffered from disease. And West's own health was failing. Suffering from some sort of kidney or bladder disease, he was bled regularly by military doctors, and in letters home he hinted at his own impending death.
It was largely, then, in desperation that Wolfe resolved to attack the city from its western side. Montcalm believed that the cliffs rising steeply from the river made the city unapproachable from this direction, and therefore he had deployed his best troops and artillery to the east. But Wolfe believed that he could find just the tiniest of openings, and so on 5 September he began transporting about one-fourth of his 22,000-man army upriver to a point almost ten miles southwest of the city. Then, on the night of 12 September, he loaded an advance guard of 2000 men into small boats, floated them downriver with the ebb tie, and deposited them on a small beach at the base of a steep 200-foot cliff. While a small force distracted the French with a noisy diversion downstream, Wolfe's men climbed to the top of the cliff, formed ranks and quietly marched across the broad plateau—the Plains of Abraham—that led toward the city walls.
By the time Montcalm became aware that he had been tricked, Wolfe's entire force of 5000 men had scaled the cliffs and begun marching toward the city. It was too late for Montcalm to redeploy his more experienced troops, stationed to the east, and the city's weaker west walls could never withstand a siege or bombardment. Montcalm's only choice was to confront the British on the field, so he ordered his men to meet the British attack outside the city walls. But Montcalm's hurried defense was doomed. His army, filled with Canadian militia, was no match for the more disciplined British regulars. It took less than an hour of fighting for the French forces to be put to flight.
Wolfe's attack was a brilliant but risky stratagem that succeeded only because everything fell perfectly into place—from the tides to the moon, which sat low on the eastern horizon, limiting the vision of French sentries on the cliffs. To the British, it brought success; to Wolfe, it brought the battlefield glory he long craved—a glory only heightened by the fact that during the assault he was struck down by a musket ball and died on the battlefield.
West's painting provides a visual history of the British capture of Quebec. From the fleet that carried Wolfe's men up the Saint Lawrence to the disciplined British regulars firing on confused French soldiers, one can trace the campaign from right to left in the painting's background. But the painting reveals far more than the details of battle; it records the tremendous national optimism and sense of imperial destiny that emerged from the British victory over the French in the war. In the figure of Wolfe lying beneath the British flag, West compared this martyr's achievement to the death and significance of an even larger historic figure—Jesus Christ, as portrayed in multiple renderings of the descent from the cross. And further, West promised Britain in this painting not only historical greatness, but also that the dicey problems of empire would be resolved. The Americans, represented here by the ranger, dressed in green, attending anxiously on the fallen English general, would be peacefully integrated within this empire. And so would the Indians; in the lower left, a noble warrior kneels in contemplative respect before his English leader. In short, the Death of General Wolfe celebrates not just a martyred hero, but the ascendance of the British Empire—the elimination of the French from North America and the prospect of a harmonious and glorious imperial future.
As much as anything else, therefore, the painting is loaded with irony.
In 1771, when the painting was unveiled, Britain was enjoying a temporary—but only temporary—period of calm in its tempestuous relations with its American colonies. Within a year, those relations would be strained by colonists' burning of the British customs ship Gaspee. Within two years, Parliament's passage of the Tea Act would trigger the final round of debates and boycotts that would culminate in America's declaration of independence.
Benjamin West's celebration of the glories of the British Empire, therefore, was unveiled just as Britain was about to lose its most critical colonial possession. Heightening the irony, it was the very French and Indian War commemorated in the painting that directly triggered the British policies that would lead to this loss.
By the end of the war, British policymakers had reached the conclusion that their colonists in America were ungrateful and out of control. In particular, British officials were disgusted by the resistance of American colonial assemblies to comply with requests for troops and financial contributions to the war effort. The war was being fought on their territory—largely to secure their borders and their futures—yet these ungrateful Americans balked at contributing to their own defense.
The only solution had been for Parliament to absorb all the costs—and during wartime, William Pitt had been willing to do this. But in the wake of the war's successful conclusion, Britain found itself strapped with a huge debt of £130 million. Servicing the debt alone cost £4.5 million a year, more than half of Britain's entire annual budget.
To British policymakers, a logical source of revenue to pay down that debt was the American colonies. After all, compared to their English cousins, Americans were sorely undertaxed. While residents of England paid taxes on land, tobacco, beer, carriages, newspapers, and even the number of windows in their houses, Americans paid only those taxes assessed by their colonial assemblies. In practice, these were comparatively light—only one-sixteenth of those paid in England, according to some estimates.
It only made sense that Americans should be asked to pay more of their fair share. Especially since, now that the war was over, these same colonists were streaming over the Appalachians into the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, where the French threat had been removed at great cost in British blood and treasure. But the Indians were still there, and it was only a matter of time before there would be trouble and the crown would have to send expensive armies to protect American ambitions once again.
Such thinking led to a profound change in traditional British colonial policies. It was time for Parliament to impose some new taxes and limits on migration, and to send tougher governors to push the colonial assemblies into line.
But while British policymakers drew one set of lessons from the war, Americans walked away with their own, very different set. They learned that the fabled British army was not invincible—that its leaders made mistakes and that its soldiers could be defeated. Even while publicly toasting William Pitt and throwing up statutes of the new king, George III, in private many Americans mocked the poor performance of the British regulars. If not for the provincial militia, the gossip ran, the war would never have been won. Braddock and his army, in particular, were lampooned as cowards and over-trained stiffs. The gallant young colonel George Washington, on the other hand, who had emerged from the Battle of the Wilderness with his coat shot to pieces but his person unharmed—now there was a real hero.
West's painting contains great deal of historical detail—the color of the uniforms, the sweep of the battle. But it got the real story all wrong. In its celebration of Britain's imperial destiny, it proved less a historical prophecy than an exercise in wishful thinking. General Wolfe's heroic success at Quebec hadn't been the beginning of a glorious future for the British Empire in North America; it had been the beginning of the end.