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Is Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe better than a Michelangelo? He’d certainly think so.

Art critics would surely be aghast by West’s belief that David's creator was overrated, but they’d have to admit that his Death of General Wolfe gave him more than a bit of authority to form his own artistic opinions. This flashy epic, measuring an impressive seven by five feet, caused quite the stir in the historical painting genre— and not just because its creator had a bone to pick with the Old Masters. The contemporary get-up West chose for the subjects of Death of Wolfe was a bit taboo for the era. At the time, only classical garb was deemed appropriate for historical paintings, and West’s transgression alienated his patron King George III. George may have turned his kingly nose up at the project, unwilling to spend a single coin on such a repugnant display of historical accuracy, but Death of Wolfe’s fame encouraged fellow painters to follow in the footsteps of Benjamin and other toga-hating trailblazers.

Wolfe himself became a martyr for his British supporters during the Seven Years’ War. Born to a less wealthy and distinguished family than most military officers, Wolfe chose the plain garb shown here to close the gap between him and the soldiers under his command. In the words of the Earl-Bishop who commissioned a later version of West’s masterpiece, Wolfe was a “military saint,” a man well worth the fanfare. Apparently enticed by Wolfe’s legend, West took his time to ensure that his interpretation was a real tear-jerker.

Aside from an eagle eye for the fashion trends of 1759, West’s gifts for accuracy were limited. Of the fourteen men painted here, ten were not actually present for General Wolfe’s death during the Battle of Quebec; unfortunately for the history books, West always valued soul-crushing metaphors over authenticity. It is this penchant for the dramatic that drove West to barrage his scene with symbolic imagery. The Native American warrior to the left of Wolfe, whose posture has been criticized as a diminishment of his dignity and a play-in to the “noble savage” stereotype, kneels pensively like a precursor to Rodin’s later The Thinker. Wolfe’s placement in the arms of his compatriots is an unmistakable nod to depictions of the Lamentation of Christ, in which Jesus’ body is supported in the arms of the Virgin Mary. Sensationalized? Perhaps. Fascinating? Most definitely.


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Here is what Wikipedia says about The Death of General Wolfe

The Death of General Wolfe is a 1770 painting by Anglo-American artist Benjamin West, commemorating the 1759 Battle of Quebec, where General James Wolfe died at the moment of victory. The painting, containing vivid suggestions of martyrdom, broke a standard rule of historical portraiture by featuring individuals who had not been present at the scene and dressed in modern, instead of classical, costumes. The painting has become one of the best-known images in 18th-century art.

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Comments (2)


I think this painting is an excellent example of neoclassical art. It's very easy to find the classical connection in architecture with the roman columns and the great statues. But I think there is a very cool more subtle connection in neoclassical paintings. The flowing nature of the characters poses reminds me of Raphael's "The School of Athens," and both of these paintings seem to hearken back to the Greek love of the human form. A good example of this would be the Discobolus of Myron. I feel like this type of positioning creates a really intense sense of drama in a piece that can be traced from Neoclassical to Renaissance to Classical.

pogo agogo

Hahahaha I remember studying this in 101. That Native American guy is all like "hmm yeah, you dying."