The New World history painting meets the Old World – Benjamin West

Benjamin West – the Death of General Wolf.

When I was at school history was divided into the study of Old World History and the New World – as in The Americas – when I was a child nothing much happened there before 1492 in the new world, apart from the occasional episode relating to bloodthirsty Aztecs. Africa, Europe and Asia came under the Old World heading as those continents had been known since antiquity. Of course, the truth is that the continents all the same age, it was simply that when Columbus turned up, if we discount the Vikings, the Americas were new to the explorers.

In time the inhabitants of the so called New World started to interpret events in the Old World. Benjamin West was born in Pennsylvania but eventually settled in London when two wealthy families paid for him to travel to Europe. In time he would teach a generation of American artists who travelled to London and then returned to America.

He learned to make paints from a group of Indigenous Americans when he was a child and between 1746 and 1759, having taught himself how to paint, worked on portraits. From there he travelled to Europe and studied the works of the great Italian artists. Finally in 1772 King George III (yes the mad one) appointed him as the court historical painter – demonstrating if nothing else that the Victorians didn’t invent the genre despite appearances to the contrary.

Remember at this time history painting is effectively Biblical or mythological – the stories come from the classical past and the style is Neo-classical.

West was commissioned to depict the life of King Edward III for Windsor Castle but in the end he painted about sixty works for the Crown – they include portraits, interpretations of Biblical tales and works relating to England’s history. His work is still part of the royal collection. Why not search the collection here:

Then in 1770 created the painting depicting the death of General Wolfe which was exhibited in 1771. Wolfe died in 1759 – so not set in the mists of time. Other artists were horrified by the idea. it just wasn’t the done thing. West wanted to paint something real…except of course because it was a narrative piece there was quite a lot of dramatic licence. And the most famous dead person in art was Christ – so that’s who Wolfe is modelled on – well, on the artistic renderings of Christ that West was familiar with. The depiction turned him into a military saint and, as a result, our understanding of the event and its history was well and truly skewed.

It was very popular, although more by way of current affairs at the time as were his depictions of the French and Indian Wars – which Churchill described as the first true world war. In 1806 he produced the Death of Nelson in the same mould as the death of General Wolfe. In 1818 he painted Robert Clive and Emperor Shared Alam signing the Treaty of Allahabad. Today of course, to us they are historical paintings.

And, of course because he was the first, prolific and well paid, West set the rules for historical painting in America.