Wolfe’s death in the battle to conquer Quebec in 1759 still resonated when West painted this work, its defining image. The men around Wolfe include portraits of fellow officers and representative types – enlisted soldiers, a settler in green, an Indigenous warrior. Pose, gesture and expression – ranging from stoic reserve to tears – eloquently tell the story. Unusually, West added carefully observed details of contemporary clothing and weaponry to anchor the scene in reality, and so connect to his audience. His goal was not to persuade viewers of the literal truth of his painting, but to move them to emulate Wolfe’s self-sacrifice. The canvas made the artist’s reputation.
Frame: carved and gilded pine. Britain, c. 1775–1800
Purchased with the generous support of the Members of the National Gallery of Canada and an anonymous donor.