- 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.