The art of the dying general at 250 years old

September 10, 2009

generalwolfe1– Carl Mollins is a Toronto-based journalist who has worked at the Toronto Daily Telegram, Reuters (in London), The Canadian Press news service (in Toronto, London, Ottawa, Washington, DC) and Maclean’s magazine (in Toronto and Washington, DC). The opinions expressed are his own. –

It was long ago, in 1761, when Pennsylvanian portrait artist Benjamin West moved east—across the Atlantic. Nine years later in England, he looked back west to produce a controversial but renowned portrayal of the death of British General James Wolfe during England’s seizure of Quebec from France 250 years ago, on September 13, 1759.

Attention to the picture persists nowadays, so long since the British soldiers set up what rapidly became complete English control of the Canadian colony. Perennial prints and publication of West’s art and comparable materials are reminders of what launched Canada as a country divided linguistically, in culture and politically, the situation that remains today.

West devised that picture as the hired “history artist” of King George III, who was already ensnarled in England’s imminent loss of its other North American colonies as the independent United States of America.

That heightened the popularity of West’s picture, despite some criticism of its then-modernistic appearance. Painting Wolfe and the cluster of soldiers around him in battle dress strides away from the traditional portrayal of military heroes draped in capes and god-like postures. West did four paintings, differing in size, and they were repeated in hundreds of prints in the 1870s, more and more ever since.

West’s picture, titled “The Death of General Wolfe”, portrays the situation by guesswork and by adding veterans who paid for their inclusion. In the foreground is a half-naked, barefoot, head-feathered person, an apparent tribal warrior of First-Nation Canadians, although the record indicates none were involved.

Even more factually fanciful is a similar picture showing the death in the same battle of the French commander, Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm de Saint-Veran. In fact, the record indicates that Montcalm dies the following morning. Not only does the Montcalm army include First-Nations soldiers, but a tropical palm tree rises above the distraught soldiers.

Reinforcing the West painting’s provision of Wolfe’s heroism are poetic and musical tributes composed over the centuries.

Barely six weeks after the Quebec clash, the early English publication “Busy Body” published in its issue of October 22, 1759, a poem of Oliver Goldsmith, including the lines:

“. . . . O Wolfe! to thee a streaming flood of woe,
Sighing we pay, and think e’en conquest dear;
Quebec in vain shall teach our breast to glow,
Whilst thy sad fate extorts the heart-wrung tear . . . .
Yet they shall know thou conquerest, though dead!”

More than a century later in Canada, the poetic and musical Toronto schoolmaster Alexander Muir (Principal of Leslie and later Gladstone schools), composed during the 1867 formation of the Canadian Confederation what became a virtual national anthem in many schools for most of the following 100 years.

The lyrics of his stirring song, “The Maple Leaf Forever“, proclaim that, “from Britain’s shore Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came and planted firm Britannia’s flag on Canada’s fair domain.”

His nationalist chorus reaches beyond that divisive history. Muir altered a line in which original lyrics referring to Canada’s commitment to the British floral emblems—Scottish thistle, Irish shamrock, English rose—to add the French fleur de lis, or lily.

The song goes on in the chorus to applaud “the maple leaf our emblem dear, the maple leaf forever”—an outlook fulfilled a century after Confederation with Canada’s replacement of its red ensign of the Union Jack with adoption of the Maple Leaf flag in 1965.

Yet still, two and a half centuries after the English took over Canada from the French, the country’s national attitudes created 250 years ago divisibly, day-by-day persist.


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Every American who thinks they can win ‘the hearts and minds’ of conquered people need only observe the pride of francophone quebecors to see that you never really can. While Canada hasn’t had violent struggles with our French population (well, Louis Riel never really fought a pitched battle and was captured in weeks, and the FLQ flared out after the Bourassa incident, so maybe one summer with a couple of bombings), the realtionship certainly isn’t overly warm in Quebec and the Maritimes.While I’m not sure what the point of the article here is, I think that anglophone Canada is happy to embrace the cultures that come to live here in the spirit of fellowship and freedom. The francophones do not embrace those other cultures because they feel it endangers their own, and the ‘special’ status it affords them in Canada. Even the French from France who come to live in Quebec find themselves set apart by francophone quebecors. Maybe that’s not the problem being discussed here, but I feel it’s one that should be acknowledged.

Posted by the Shah | Report as abusive

What a great post. I have always thought that this painting is a rather bizarre glorification of a colonial past that lead to the disenfranchisement of aboriginal peoples and the marginalisation of the cultures and languages of founding nations other than England and early immigrants. This author shows how this painting actually depicts the events and players that created the persistent solitudes and the tensions that may very well be one of Canada’s great strengths. Some peoples have paid a terrible price but the lessons our country learns as we continue to negotiate equality and diversity over these 250 years can only serve us well as we go forward.

Posted by Canuckella | Report as abusive

Being Canadian first and francophone second (Belgium origins). I’ve found it very disturbing after having been educated in the Anglophone side of Canada. To see the animosity from the Quebecois towards the “Englais”. They have such a special status that they have a opposition majority represented at the Federal level and yet only represent one province. And it appears not to be enough!By coincidence the same amount of friction exist in my country of origin in between the “Wallons” and “Flamant”. It seem that we do little in learning each other culture from an early age. And we use this lack of “education” as we mature as an excuse for nationalism and self-preservation.

Posted by Fred | Report as abusive

Dear Writer,Very good painting on Canada!s political history.I really admired it.Great painter with great,real notions.Yes. i have listened some tensions between French and English speaking origins in Canada.That pressing tensions were relieved by amicable manner.Canada shows Unity in Diversity.In India, many states,many languages, many social habits,many religions, many sub divisions among her own states,but,still India is a one country.Unity in Diversity is still cherishing and expanding.

Posted by krishnamurthi ramachandran | Report as abusive

This is so interesting. The reference to Alexander Muir’s song “The Maple Leaf Forever” and the comment about unity ane diversity reminded me that some years ago the song was updated to reflect 20th century Canada.Here is what it says about that version at Wikipedia:”CBC Radio’s Metro Morning show in Toronto ran a controversial contest to find new lyrics for the song in 1997. The contest was won by Romanian immigrant, mathematician, and now a songwriter, actor and poet, Vladimir Radian, who came to Canada in the 1980s.”Another great Canadian sang yet another version at a hockey game and you can find that on You Tube: S8 (I think her name is spelled Anne MurrAy.)You can read the lyrics of the three versions (and the story of how Muir was inspired to write the original) at Wikipedia: eaf_Forever

Posted by TeaLeaf | Report as abusive

Unfortunately there is a sentiment in Canada that permeates many: the notion that all our British founders were evil colonialists and the poor downtrodden were all victims. This attitude is likely drummed into young minds through our schools and Liberal media, where our colonial past is the only safe whipping boy in an overly politically correct society.Drew KreutzweiserOntario, Canada

Posted by Drew Kreutzweiser | Report as abusive

Art imitates Life in The Future.Our feathered friend echoing Rodin in the foreground seems to be thinking: “Maybe it’s time we made Single Payer, not War”

Posted by The Bell | Report as abusive

S’funny, my wife’s Quebecoise, and I’m an English nationalist, and we have no diferences on Quebec. The ‘problem’ of Quebec aspirations is similar to that of the Cornish in Britain. A lot of hot air by the chatterers, and very little real substance.The problem if there is one, is that certain vested bureaucratic interests, prefer Stalinistic uniformity, and this attitude conflicts with the sensitiveties of dual culture/government. Good.

Posted by Rhoops | Report as abusive