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Figure 8: Benjamin West

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Image 30

A rendition of Benjamin West’s Death of Wolfe as redrawn by Croome and engraved by Devereux reveals the degree to which original works of art were employed in illustrated histories with a frequency that was often counterproductive to its illustrative intentions.  West’s original painting of the death of James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec during the French and Indian War was controversial when it was completed in 1771 because, although it included well-established images of heroic death and evidence of strong classical posturing, it depicted eighteenth-century actors in contemporary military dress rather than “the classical costume of antiquity.” [Image 30] Fearing that “the presentation of heroic death in everyday dress would destroy respect” for Wolfe, the president of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, advised the painter to clothe the general and his entourage in togas after the manner of classically inspired painters on the Continent. West’s oft-quoted defense of his choice—that the “same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil of the artist”—occasioned a penitent Reynolds to recant his objections to the period costuming and to declare the work a “revolution in art.”[39]  So successful was West’s painting, in fact, that it established a vocabulary of symbolic images irrefutably associated with Wolfe’s death (the pieta posture, the foreboding clouds, the noble savage), a lexicon of images that overshadowed all competing pictorial representations of the event.

Walker’s use of West’s interpretive painting might be construed as an effort to allow pictorial art to compete on equal terms with the written word as an explanatory device for understanding history. In his narrative, Frost quoted Belsham’s melodramatic assertion that “a death more glorious is nowhere to be found in history.”  But such a deduction would ignore the “replicated” quality of West’s painting as well as the culture of reception into which such a standardized image was received. Nearly all the illustrations derived from history paintings in the Frost’s Pictorial History of the United States were examples of visualizations so powerful as to have become the clichéd representations of the historical events they depicted.

Viewed by the public as nearly synonymous with the events themselves, these works were frequently over-reproduced in such numbers as to become symbolic as well as literal “stereotypes,” mass-produced images printed and reprinted through the process of stereotyping.  Walker’s use of clichéd historical paintings rather than original productions meant that his illustrations often had a banal, decorative quality to them. The publisher’s decision to reproduce West’s painting may have reflected financial as much as editorial preferences (it allowed Walker to use a widely circulating image rather than to commission a new one), but its ultimate consequence was to weaken the impact of pictorial representation relative to Frost’s written narrative. [Image 31]

[39] Barbara J. Mitnick, “The History of History Painting,” in Picturing History: American Painting, 1770-1930, ed. William Ayres (New York: Rizzoli, 1993), 29-30.