The clouds are heavy and black. A grim day for fighting. In the air is the smell of damp, and mortar fire.
It’s a little after 10 a.m. on Sept. 13, 1759.
The battle is almost over. In the distance, the wounded French soldiers are retreating.
And a young general in a red coat is dying far from England, on the other side of the Atlantic.
What does history look like? Who gets to write it, in whose name?
The Seven Years’ War — what Americans call the French and Indian War — was, in Winston Churchill’s estimation, the true first world war. French and British forces clashed on five continents, from the Caribbean to Senegal to India and the Philippines.
“The Death of General Wolfe,” painted by Benjamin West in 1770, depicts the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, outside Quebec City. It was the turning point in a war that would end with the British takeover of French colonies from Quebec to Florida.
In 1770, neither the United States nor Canada had yet been established. But West’s painting — the first by an American artist to gain international renown — stands at the origin of a New World narrative that would stubbornly endure in both countries for centuries.
West’s painting drew upon the real events of the day, and cloaked them in romance. At its center is Maj. Gen. James Wolfe, commander of the British forces in the continent’s northeast.
On his right wrist is a white tourniquet, stained with a trickle of blood. Wolfe took a bullet early in the battle, wrapped the wound, continued on.
His deputies, who in reality were out waging battle, are pictured cradling his right arm.
A handsome doctor leans in to press a cloth against Wolfe’s subsequent wound, which punctured his lungs.
Carrying the British colors is Lt. Henry Browne, the only figure in this painting who was actually with Wolfe in his dying moments.
In the background, to the right, we see the St. Lawrence River, and the British ships from which soldiers sprung overnight.
Redcoats are climbing up the cliffs from the river to the plain. This was Wolfe’s strategy: sneak over the top and surprise the French.
In fact, the Brits had scaled these cliffs in darkness, hours before Wolfe received his fatal shot. But West paints it all together, a compressed vision of national heroism and individual martyrdom.
Out to the left is the steeple of Quebec City’s church, shrouded in gunsmoke. The Brits, in red, are laying into the French, in blue.
Can you make out this chap, flying off his horse in the distance? This tiny guy is the French commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, who, like Wolfe, died of his wounds here.
Running back from the French line is a British messenger, bearing the enemy’s flag. He’s racing to tell the dying Wolfe of the victory.
And the messenger has been spotted by this man in green, leaning in to relay to Wolfe the news of the French surrender.
Slung across his back is a cartridge bag decorated with beads and feathers.
Where his fellow soldiers wear black leather boots, the messenger is wearing beaded moccasins and rather swanky garters: He’s an American settler.
The news has come just in time. Wolfe is on the edge of expiry, at the age of 32. But the news of the French surrender has made his last minutes into an ecstasy.
Look at that face: blissful, beatific. No pain. He is becoming a “military saint,” as one earl called him: a saint of empire, who is dying so that Britain may rule the world.
General Wolfe would become the supreme martyr of 18th-century England. A marble memorial of him was erected in Westminster Abbey. Songs were written. Plays staged. Sermons preached.
Treacly poetry composed, comparing him to the heroes of Greece and Rome. “In joys of conquest he resigns his breath / And, fill’d with England’s glory, smiles in death.”
London in 1770 had an entire Wolfe market — and Benjamin West, a young American abroad, saw an opening.
At this moment, the most respected form of art was history painting: idealized, morally instructive narrative scenes, usually drawn from the classics or the Bible.
Here’s one by West, painted just two years previously: a scene of a Roman empress in mourning.
The expectation, for a painter of the mid-18th century, would therefore have been to inscribe Wolfe’s story into a classical setting. Just like all that gassy poetry comparing Wolfe to Greek and Trojan heroes.
Instead, West threw out the togas and laurel wreaths, and staged the death of Wolfe as a grandly architectural act of pseudoreportage.
Even while drawing upon real events, he turned up the drama to operatic levels. The figures are posed as if they are in an ensemble of classical sculpture.
A dozen pained expressions.
Even the dark clouds have shifted to bathe the dying general in light. The flagpole, unsubtly, points from Wolfe’s body up to heaven.
The dying Wolfe, in particular, looks like Jesus brought down from the cross, surrounded by mourners.
Here’s a classic Lamentation of Christ, by Botticelli, from around 1490.
Here’s another, by Rubens, a little more than two centuries later. The corpse may be slackened, the mourners devastated, but this sacrifice will redeem the world.
And West channeled this Christian iconography into an imperial apotheosis. The dying Wolfe, slumped but enraptured, surrounded by comforters, is on his way to becoming a British demigod.
He’s the star of a kind of ideal New World fiction — staged in the grand manner, and with an unnamed figure as its most dramatic witness.
Just to Wolfe’s right, anchoring the left group, is a man from one of this continent’s First Nations, perhaps the Mohawk.
He is, by some measure, the most prominent figure in the painting besides Wolfe himself — the one who commands our attention as much as the martyr.
Beside him are both a gun and an ax.
On his back, to either side of his spine, are tattoos or drawings of snakes. He rests his hand on his head in a gesture of melancholy recognition.
This observer is another of West’s liberties with history. The Iroquois Confederacy, which included the Mohawk nation, was allied with the British in the war — but in reality there were no Iroquois on the Quebec battlefield that day.
Unlike the other men in the painting, he is not identifiable by name. He figures here as an archetype of what Europeans called the “noble savage”: the Rousseauian myth of an ambassador from a pure new world.
West invented this nameless warrior, but not without research. He owned numerous objects made by Eastern Woodlands people, which are now in the collection of the British Museum.
This bag has the same white chevrons and feathered fringe as the one around the figure’s waist.
This knife, with its porcupine quillwork decorating the hilt and the accompanying sheath, resembles the weapon hung around his neck.
There were perhaps no Iroquois present on the battlefield, but this observer has another role to play.
Look at the curve of his back. Look at how he poses his head on his fist. More than anyone in the painting, he looks the most Greco-Roman.
He gazes at Wolfe like one of Jesus’ mourners in the Lamentation. This classicized portrayal, from an American artist in particular, would have appeared to 18th-century Londoners as a geopolitical tearjerker.
He is Wolfe’s double. Solid and muscular, where Wolfe is all feminine curves. Face hale, where Wolfe’s is deathly white. Chest bare, where Wolfe’s is covered and gushing blood.
In this assembly of Brits on the battlefield, only he seems to be Wolfe’s equal. And the bloody, tangled birth of British North America takes on the form of a founding romance.
“The Death of General Wolfe” became not only an artistic sensation but a media event. Lines to see this painting at its first exhibition in London stretched well out the door, and engravings circulated throughout Britain and its colonies.
West’s potent combination of history and mythmaking, British boosterism and New World melodrama, became famous enough that cartoonists used it for parodies, even after the British lost the 13 colonies to Canada’s south.
As for the original, it left Britain in 1918, when a duke donated it to the Canadian people. It arrived at the National Gallery in Ottawa three years later. It was there that Robert Houle, an artist of the Anishinaabe people, encountered West’s colonial opera.
His own painting, “Kanata” (1992), blows up “The Death of General Wolfe” to even larger scale, but wipes out almost all its detail.
Houle traced the contours of West’s theatrical battlefield with a sepia crayon, framed by panels of monochrome blue and red.
Those same colors have been drained from Wolfe’s red uniform and the doctor’s blue coat, and from the Union Jack above them. The men are shades of themselves.
The colors endure only in the trade blanket of the First Nations warrior. He is no more expressive here than in West’s painting.
But Houle’s revision suggests how art, as much as war, shapes the fate of men and nations.
There’s one detail in “The Death of General Wolfe” I keep coming back to.
It’s very slight — but in the shadow of the grieving British officers, you can just see the warrior’s hand brush against the boot of the dying general.
It’s just the briefest contact. His thumb only, maybe his first finger too. Not a touch you’d notice in the seconds before your death. But it’s there.
The hand and the foot. The musket and the tomahawk. The real warrior and the invented one. These two combatants, in ways they cannot know, have been bound into a historical narrative of immense, and tragic, scale.
The contact is transformation and also death. It is recognition and also indifference. In this glancing touch is a preview of the whole of settler colonialism, sordid, indelible, irreversible.
A new continent enters the arena of “Western” art with Wolfe’s mortal victory. But the warrior is witnessing another creation story, which will wipe out far more nations than France.
For this origin story, of Canadian history and American painting, is at last a tale of original sin. What is dying in “The Death of General Wolfe”? Not only an Englishman.