Thursday, 30 March 2017




Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about historical paintings and the question of accuracy. Whether I’m looking at famous portraits to picture what prominent figures looked like, or trying to imagine historical battles that took place before the advent of photography, historical paintings play a prominent role in visualizing history. 

As sources, paintings can certainly tell us a lot about a historical event or figure, but they also do a lot more than that: they communicate the values and ideals of any given time period in which a work was created.

Because the topic of historical paintings is unwieldly at best, I’ve decided to confine my examples to some early colonial paintings in Canada. Given that my undergraduate research focused on British and French colonialism from 1600 to 1830, I will explore the topic through the lens of early Canada. One of my favourite paintings of all time is The Death of General Wolfe (1770) by Benjamin West; not because I think it’s particularly accurate, but because it raises so many fascinating issues. 

The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West is a spectacular example of a sensationalized battle scene that raises more questions than it answers. Source
West’s 1770 painting depicts Major General James Wolfe dying at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. Even without being an art history expert, I can recognize that West presents an idealized aesthetic of the scene, one that sensationalizes the battle and its outcome. The cost of a hard-won victory against a vastly larger French army (led by Louis-Joseph de Montcalm), Wolfe’s tragic death has been mythologized throughout the centuries.

The dramatic depiction of Wolfe as a fallen Christ-like figure, surrounded by onlookers, conveys the grandeur of the Neoclassical movement. West declared his own process in depicting the historical scene: “It must exhibit the event in a way to excite awe & veneration … all should be proportioned to the highest idea conceived of the Hero … A mere matter of fact will never produce this effect.”

West’s painting is laid out similarly to the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, painted by Anthony van Dyck c. 1630s. Since art is a form of interpretation and is constructed according to artistic conventions, additional context is relevant to visitors when situating the work in a history museum. Source.
Since artistic depictions of historical events take some license when constructing the scene, observing The Death of General Wolfe as a historical artifact prompts so many questions: What is happening here? Who are all these people? Who is the indigenous warrior at the bottom of the frame, and why is he depicted that way?

Asking these questions suggests missing context that could supplement the artwork with written interpretation in a history museum. At present, the Benjamin West painting hangs in the National Gallery of Canada, but if it were on display in the Canadian War Museum, for example, how would its significance differ? Arguably, the purpose of the artwork as a source changes when the object is placed in its new setting.

In a history museum, visitors are more likely to look for accurate depictions of historical events to gain a sound understanding of what happened in the past. This is where interpretation gets trickier, and museum professionals must make decisions on how best to exhibit artwork. Should the museum display related artifacts alongside the painting? Should there be a didactic panel specifically identifying differences between the historical event and its artistic depiction?

This painting by C.W. Jefferys, Champlain Trading with the Indians, does not reveal details on the quality of relationships between Champlain and Indigenous groups such as the Huron or Iroquois (neither of whom are explicitly identified in this artistic rendition). Source.
Especially when paintings deal with a contentious narrative, such as colonialism in Canada, explicit analysis is crucial. Factors such as the creator of the work, his or her purpose, and relevant biases can alter viewers’ understanding of a painting. C.W. Jefferys’ 1911 artwork, Champlain Trading with the Indians, lacks detail in the way of concrete information: the general term “Indian” is used in the title, overlooking the nuances of interaction in post-contact colonial New France. In this way, paintings can't stand alone as historical artifacts because they are missing the subtleties of cultural and historical significance.

The issue of accuracy is paramount in a setting where visitors have no photographs of a historical event, and constructed imagery is their main source of visual insight. More than an aesthetic experience, historical paintings have the power to convey not only emotion, but information that may be taken at face value. As such, clarity of interpretation provides an additional layer of context to ensure that these artifacts contribute to an accurate and informed view of the past.   

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