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U-M Clements Library celebrates 'The Death of General Wolfe,' iconic 1776 painting by Benjamin West

By Tracy Payovich

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ANN ARBOR—A new exhibition at the University of Michigan William L. Clements Library is highlighting its robust historical sources related to the 1759 siege of Québec—a major turning point of the colonial era in which the British wrested control of Canada from France. 

About 18 years after the conflict, American artist Benjamin West depicted the storied battlefield death of British General James Wolfe in an epic oil painting, which has been  part of the Clements Library collection for 91 years. 

For the first time since 2012, West’s painting “The Death of General Wolfe”—which is over 240 years old and 8.5 feet in width—has been installed with new custom lighting on the oak-paneled walls of the Avenir Foundation Room at the Clements Library.

Painted in honor of the French and Indian War’s climactic Battle of Québec, also known as the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the work is widely considered an iconic masterpiece presenting themes of national unity, imperial power and martyrdom. West also produced four other full-sized versions of the painting which are now held by institutions in Canada and England. 

As the only original full-size copy in the United States, “The Death of General Wolfe” has been called “the single most recognizable item from the Clements Library collections” by Clayton Lewis, curator of graphics.

“This painting’s value goes beyond illustration of a historic event,” he said. “It symbolizes the peak of British imperial power in North America.” 

At the Clements Library, it also represents the significant primary source holdings on the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.

West’s painting first came to Ann Arbor as a gift from the Clements Library’s founder and namesake, William L. Clements, in 1928. It was originally commissioned from West by Friedrich, Prince of Waldeck in 1776, and stayed in the collection at Arolsen Castle in Hesse, Germany, for 150 years. 

Since its move to Ann Arbor, the painting has left the Clements Library only three times, most recently to anchor the U-M Museum of Art’s exhibition “Benjamin West: General Wolfe and the Art of Empire” (2012-13) and for storage while the Clements Library underwent a major renovation and expansion.

Close-up of “The Death of General Wolfe” by Benjamin West. Photo by Austin Thomason/Michigan Photography.



During the Clements Library’s public open hours on Fridays, visitors can view archivally relevant artworks and realia on permanent display as well as changing exhibitions. A rotating exhibition titled “A History of Collecting at the Clements Library” describes the growth of the collections over time as influenced by Clements and the library’s four directors. 

To mark the reinstallation of “The Death of General Wolfe,” the display will consist entirely of acquisitions made over decades that are directly relevant to the Battle of Québec and the life of Wolfe. Selections include original manuscript and printed accounts of the battle, a hand-colored map engraving of the battle positions and letters written by Wolfe himself in 1758. 

West’s “The Death of General Wolfe” will remain on permanent display, and the exhibition of complementary materials is open through Feb. 7, 2020. The Clements Library’s Avenir Foundation Room is free and open to the public on Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

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