Portraits of an empire
By Carole McNamara
How is it that an American painter came to define the British Empire?
When Benjamin West’s painting The Death of General Wolfe was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1771 it was received with great acclaim and quickly became one of the most famous paintings in eighteenth-century Britain, serving for generations as the consummate projection of its military, moral, and cultural supremacy and a celebration of Empire.
Through forty works from Michigan, Canadian, and British collections, this thematically focused exhibition considers how artists contributed to Great Britain’s emergence as the dominant colonial power in Europe in the later eighteenth century—from West’s pivotal portrayal, to the painting’s popularization in a wide variety of media, to the cartographers on the ground in Canada whose maps helped ensure Canada’s future as a British colony.
Depicting the heroic death of James Wolfe, the British commander at the 1759 Battle of Québec during what is known in this country as the French and Indian War (1754–63), West’s canvas presented a momentous contemporary event in a large-scale history painting, but with the figures in modern rather than classical dress. In so doing, West flouted the conventions of the genre put forth by academic painters such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famed director of the Royal Academy. Though his was not the earliest representation of the death of Wolfe nor the first history painting to violate the norms of pictorial depiction by showing him in uniform, West’s interpretation of the event became iconic, crystallizing for a patriotic public the moment when Britain assumed the mantle of empire. The artist went on to produce five additional full-scale versions of the painting, one of which belongs to the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan. The composition was also widely disseminated in the form of reproductive engravings that earned both the painter and the engraver a small fortune.
In addition to West’s monumental vision of British conquest, the exhibition includes previous depictions of James Wolfe and his death on the battlefield and explores the commodification of Wolfe in popular culture. Among the many historically important and visually compelling works included in the exhibition are portions of the Murray Atlas of Canada from the UM Clements Library, a set of highly detailed maps executed in 1761–63 by military surveyors under the direction of general and military governor James Murray. The Murray Atlas (known in only five extant examples) includes plans drawn by, among others, Samuel Holland and John Montresor, the latter a British artist and military engineer who fought alongside Wolfe.
Carole McNamara is Senior Curator of Western Art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.
NOTE: A fully illustrated catalogue published by the Museum as part of the new UMMA Books series, authored by UMMA Senior Curator of Western Art Carole McNamara and with an essay by Clayton Lewis of the UM Clements Library, accompanies the exhibition.