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The Death of Wolfe

1770-1774
Origin: England, London
Unframed: 31 15/16" x 48 1/16" and Framed: 39 3/8" x 55 1/2"
Oil on canvas
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1960-668
An al fresco scene showing four men in British uniforms, a fifth man kneeling on the ground at far right, wearing a skirted brown coat, and holding up a vial that, apparently, he has just removed from a case held open in front of him. Two soldiers carry a third, who is wounded, one supporting the injured man's shoulders, the other his lower legs. They move from left to right, ostensibly headed toward the kneeling man. A fourth soldier stands near them in the left half of the composition, leaning toward the injured man and extending towards him a green-leafed twig held in his proper right hand. He holds his black cocked hat in his other hand. The four soldiers wear red coats. Those of the carried man and the man with the twig have yellow facings; that on the soldier holding the legs has red facings; the fourth soldier's coat has blue facings.
A rock pile looms behind the men. The ground appears to drop off abruptly in the foreground, suggesting the edge of a cliff. Twined tree trunks appear at far left and, in the left background, embattled soldiers appear on a field.
The 3 3/4-inch gilded frame with acanthus leaf decoration at the sight edge and stick-and-ribbon decoration inside the top edge has not been examined for original vs. replacement status as of 3/24/2009.


Label:Most Americans realize the importance of the Revolutionary War that effected their country's freedom from British rule. Far fewer acknowledge the earlier, equally critical French and Indian War, whose outcome essentially made North America a British, rather than a French, colony.
In 1759, the battle for control of Canada's capital of Quebec became the war's pivotal engagement. British forces captured the city, but their commander, General James Wolfe (1727-1759), was mortally wounded in the conflict, instantly becoming a martyred hero in Britain. Several painters in England immortalized Wolfe's death on the field, including James Barry, Edward Penny, George Romney, and American ex-patriot Benjamin West.
Until then, painters generally had emphasized the monumentality, universality, and timelessness of important events by showing their protagonists --- even contemporary ones --- in ancient Greek or Roman attire. West flaunted this tradition by depicting Wolfe and the figures around him in modern-day garb, a departure that created a sensation and contributed to the work's iconic status in the development of history painting. Yet West deliberately compromised other details, such as the number and identities of the men who witnessed Wolfe's demise, because his goal was an emotionally charged, convincing picture, not necessarily an historically accurate one.
In a factual sense, Colonial Williamsburg's picture is more realistic than West's. While some details of the uniforms are inaccurate for the specific occasion, credible 1750s regimental dress is recorded, not togas and sandals. Moreover, military scholars generally agree that this composition and cast of characters accord more closely with eyewitness accounts than do West's. The painter's obscurity is therefore especially regrettable. One James Williams exhibited a depiction of the death of Wolfe at the Free Society of Artists in London in 1774. The picture displayed here may be Williams's, but because so few examples of this artist's work have been located for stylistic comparisons, the possibility remains speculative.
Provenance:Michael Harvard ("Vendor") relayed only that the painting had come from the "collection of an Englishman."
However, a photo of the painting was labeled, "formerly belonging to the Riall family of Yeovil, Somerset." [N. B. The photo appears to be missing as of 9/17/2003, but the file contains a photocopy of its labeling].
Inscription(s):In red paint on the lower stretcher, in the lower left corner, is, "899-0961," possibly an inventory number from a former owner/dealer.