The Myth of North America, in One Painting

Fascinating art history — a thoughtful close reading of a painting. Great example of multimodal journalism.

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.


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