Allen Staley: Nelson and the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of art

From the Luce Lecture on American Creativity, by the professor of art history, delivered at the Royal Academy, in London

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Benjamen West, a founding member and second president of the Royal Academy, was born in Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, in 1738, but he left North America in 1760, never to return. After spending three years in Italy, he settled in London in 1763, at the age of twenty five. By 1768, he had gained the patronage of King George III, and shortly thereafter he was appointed "Historical Painter to the King".

Benjamen West, a founding member and second president of the Royal Academy, was born in Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, in 1738, but he left North America in 1760, never to return. After spending three years in Italy, he settled in London in 1763, at the age of twenty five. By 1768, he had gained the patronage of King George III, and shortly thereafter he was appointed "Historical Painter to the King".

West's Death of General Wolfe, painted in 1770, which purports to show the death of the English general at the moment of the victory of the army he commanded over the French in the Battle of Quebec, is usually looked upon as the first modern history painting. It had tremendous popular success and truly did start a new type of painting - the ambitious depictions of recent events, treated with the same seriousness as subjects from the classical past.

There is a recorded anecdote of a conversation that took place between West and Admiral Nelson - Lord Nelson - when they found themselves seated together at a dinner around 1800. Nelson told West of his admiration for The Death of General Wolfe, and asked why the artist had painted no more pictures like it. West's reply was, "because there are no more subjects like it". However, without missing a beat, he added: "But, my lord, I fear your intrepidity will yet furnish me such another scene; and, if it should, I shall certainly avail myself of it." The repartee ends with Nelson announcing: "Then I hope that I shall die in the next battle".

Despite that expression by Nelson of his willingness to sacrifice his life in the cause of art, I do not think that we can interpret his death in 1805 at the moment of the great British naval victory over the French in the battle of Trafalgar as its deliberate fulfilment.

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