Thursday, January 31, 2013
MWA XI: West's Wolfe
Although he broke new ground by depicting a contemporary war scene with a journalistic eye for detail, in fact the entire scene was made up. None of the portraits of the famous soldiers who surround West in the painting were there when he died, nor was a Native American present either. More importantly, though, West still conveyed the ideology of the exemplum virtutis by turning the death of Wolfe into a "Lamentation of the Dead Christ" scene, a recurring image in hundreds of Renaissance and Baroque paintings that viewers would have recognized immediately. (If you count the soldiers, you will discover there are 12 "Apostles" surrounding the Dying Christ-like Wolfe.) West also exoticized the scene by drawing on his American background in depicting a Native American in the foreground of the painting. But even this was an imaginary moment, for West modeled this figure on the famous Belvedere Torso, seen here, an ancient Hellenistic sculptural fragment that was famous among artists and frequently copied by them when they visited the Vatican Museums. By drawing on these visual tropes from art history, West was able to craft an important history painting using traditional methods, yet he simultaneously revitalized the art of history painting itself by offering viewers a modern twist on an old classic style.