The power of a painting: How Benjamin West became Canada’s hero

Dissecting West’s Death of General Wolfe’

6 minute read
Detail from 'Death of General Wolfe': In place of history, mythology.
Detail from 'Death of General Wolfe': In place of history, mythology.
For all its importance and buzz, I was surprised to find that The Death of General Wolfe (1770), which hangs triumphantly, but almost forlornly, in a frequently empty hall at the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa, is a rather smallish work by the 18th-Century Anglo-American painter Benjamin West. Like many Philadelphians, I'm accustomed to witnessing West up close and personal at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where West's Leviathan-sized works occupy pride of place, and full walls.

I also blame Simon Schama, who in a seminal essay on the painting (in all its glory, just 59 inches by 84 inches), published in his 1991 book Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), left no hint that the picture was anywhere but where it was first displayed, in 1771, at the Royal Academy of Art in London. No wonder I could never quite find the painting during my visits to London. Duh. My bad.

In fact, The Death of General Wolfe has been hanging in Ottawa since 1921, when it was donated by the Second Duke of Westminster to the Canadian War Memorials Fund, whereupon it was turned over to Canada's National Gallery of Art.

Like Copenhagen

And, yes, I missed it in Ottawa, too. My last visit was more than 20 years ago, when the museum was located in a nondescript building on Elgin Street in what was then a horribly nondescript capital city. (After 6 p.m. I was hard-put to find a take-away coffee outside my hotel).

Since then, the National Gallery has moved, in 1988, into brilliant new digs designed by Moshe Safdie, and Ottawa is significantly less nondescript. It's sort of like Copenhagen: a verdant urban landscape thoughtfully sprinkled with the choice benefits of a capital city.

But think of Ottawa as English and French (being Canada, after all) rather than Danish. The fact that Canada's premier art museum (as well as a top-ten North American art venue) is actually there is of course among the most obvious gifts enjoyed by a capital city, however small and provincial.

Philadelphia roots

No mistake this time. I made a beeline to the Benjamin West painting, ensconced in a second-floor space devoted to British painters. There, upon my entrance as the sole visitor to the hall, the guard latched on to me like a hot date.

Given his laser-like attention, I thought I had better ask if photography were permitted. "No/non," he replied gravely.

Why such hallowed regard by Canadians for a painting by a Philadelphian, born in 1738 in Chester County, Pennsylvania— a Tory turncoat during the American Revolution, whose interest in the portrayed scene extended singularly to British vainglory?

Never mind that Canada as a nation didn't exist at the time. Never mind that West had never ventured anywhere near Quebec.

For Canadians, it's all about location, location, location— specifically, the painting's historical siting on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City. (For "plains," read a cow pasture owned by a local farmer named Abraham.)

Sainted hero

But the truly operative word is neither geographical nor historical but mythological. While General Wolfe died in the 1759 battle between British and French forces outside Quebec, almost nothing depicted in The Death of General Wolfe was actually as it was.

Never mind. No one— much less West's patron, George III— considered West a pictorial reporter. West's self-imposed task was to serve up Wolfe as a nationally sainted British hero— a Nelson by land.

But not so fast. In fact, George was infuriated that West didn't indulge even in greater hagiography by clothing Wolfe & Co. in Classical garb, or at least armor. The king declined the painting, and, thus, West followed Plan B: He donated it to the Royal Academy. Ironically, there it was received as "truth" by a self-deceiving public that wanted its national myths served up with the grandeur embodied in great art.

Birth of a nation

Where, then, does Canada come into the picture? For many Canadians, the West painting confirms in its confines not simply the death of Wolfe, but the birth of a nation. You know that 1817 painting by John Trumbull that shows Ben Franklin and the other Founders signing the Declaration of Independence? Think along those lines.

Ironically, the equally famous French general, Marquis Louis Joseph de Montcalm, who led French forces at Quebec, also died during that battle. In fact, his death scene was captured by Francois-Louis-Joseph Watteau in his 1783 picture called (don't you know?) The Death of Montcalm.

What's more, the Watteau painting is also owned by the National Gallery. But it's not on display. Why? I inquired. On this, and on other questions I raised, National Gallery officials went oddly mum. If nothing else, victors get to write history.

(To be sure, the Watteau picture— a grey wash over black and red chalk— is hardly as dramatic, or even as stirring, as the West painting.)

Symbolic triumph

The fate of New France wasn't settled by the mayhem on Farmer Abraham's pasture. That didn't come until three years later, in 1762. But Wolfe's victory presaged the final British conquest of what is now Canada.

Just as important, West's interpretation of the battle trumped even the narrow narrative of Wolfe as war hero. As Graeme Wynn notes in his vastly detailed Illustrated History of Canada, West's painting "became the most powerful icon of an intensely symbolic triumph for British imperialism." Even in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin cheered.

Next, the frame

The National Gallery is still milking the nationalistic drama of The Death of General Wolfe for the greater good. Prominent on its website is a newly launched appeal to raise funds to purchase the painting's original 18th-Century frame, to replace a current early 20th-Century model that now encases the canvas.

Details of the provenance of the original frame, its current whereabouts, its cost, and how it went missing in the first place were among my questions that the National Gallery left unanswered, despite several e-mail exchanges and telephone conversations.

All we know is based on the little information provided on the website: that the painting was "separated" from its original "handcrafted" frame. Otherwise, the National Gallery enjoins Canadians to be "part of your history" by donating to re-frame the country's "unofficial national treasure." I donated $25.

What, When, Where

National Gallery of Canada. 380 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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