Dr Erica Charters in The Oxford Historian: Global War and Disease

Global War and Disease: The Making of Modern Bodies

Dr Erica Charters, Associate Professor of the History of Medicine

One of the most popular and famous British portrayals of eighteenth-century imperial war is Benjamin West’s The Death of Wolfe, first displayed in 1771. This grand painting, measuring more than one and a half by two meters, provides a majestic and vivid image of a military hero’s death.  It depicts a Christ-like death of the British commander James Wolfe, dying just as news is announced that British troops were victorious over the French at the 1759 Battle on the Plains of Abraham in New France.   The painting was so popular that three full-size copies were commissioned, including one for Britain’s King George III.  It was also influential in portrayals of warfare – the death of Nelson, for example, later received similar treatment.  Death of Wolfe popularized the recent innovation of showing military officers in contemporary dress, rather than in the classical dress of togas. It thereby helped to establish the modern genre of history painting, which commemorated great moments such as the French Revolution, and in which it was modern subjects, modern settings, and modern dress that were portrayed, rather than the ancient world. 

Click here to read the full article in The Oxford Historian.

Death of General Wolfe - Benjamin West (1770)