The art of the dying general at 250 years old
- 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.