U-M Clements Library exhibits “1759: Britain’s Year of Victories”
Granted, 1759 isn’t as important to current American memory as 1776, 1861, or 1941. Yet 1759 might actually be one of the most important years in the history of this continent.
The exhibit, crafted by Brian Leigh Dunnigan, the Clements’ head of Reader Services as well as Research and Publications, is built around maps, plans, books and other documents dating from the 1759 conflicts in and around Guadeloupe (the Caribbean), May 1; Niagara (Lake Ontario), July 25; Minden (Westphalia, Germany), August 1; Crown Point (Lake Champlain), August 4; Lagos (off the coast of Portugal), August 19; Quebec (Canada), September 13 and 18; and Quiberon (off the coast of France near St. Nazaire), November 20.
As Dunnigan said in a recent exchange of correspondence, “The exhibit recognizes the 250th anniversary of the seven major British military and naval victories of 1759; the American component of which is usually known as the French and Indian War. The French and Indian War was an interest of William L. Clements, the gift of whose book collection formed the basis of the Clements Library.
“Although the war would not end until 1763,” says “Dunnigan, “the victories of 1759 on land and sea made it clear that Britain had gained the upper hand in this conflict ... After 1759, there was no question of Britain’s position as a dominant colonial power.”
This lends the Clements exhibit all the import it needs to draw our attention. The library's holdings make it one of the very few institutions in America that could draw solely from its own resources to mount such an impressive display.
Among the exhibit’s many highlights is Jean Palairet’s particularly handsome 1756 “Carte des possessions Angloises & Francoises du continent de l’Amerique Septentrionale,” published in London in 1756, identifying “the British colonies in yellow and disputed lands in red with a British estimation of the legitimate extent of the French colonies of Canada and Louisiana in shades of green.”
Another outstanding feature is a 1780 print by famed artist Francois-Louis-Joseph Watteau depicting the death of French commander Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, on Sept. 14, 1759, during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham outside the walls of Quebec City. Montcalm is drawn by Watteau in much the death pose as that used earlier by British painter Benjamin West to depict the earlier death of General James Wolfe (the British commander during this pivotal conflict) in the battle that effectively secured British control of the both the Great Lakes region and Canada.All of which leads to the single most important reason to visit the Clements (at any time) but particularly now as an essential attraction of this exhibit. For West’s 1776 oil on canvas “The Death of General Wolfe,” on permanent display in the Clements Library, is one of the most famous military themed paintings of all time.Â
This curiously idealized, yet also highly realistic, tour de force, composed five times by West during his career (the Clements owns the second replica after the first painting commissioned for King George III) is a landmark artwork.
Featuring the dying victor of Quebec in the work’s mid-ground, the heroically-scaled “The Death of General Wolfe” was—and continues to be—a controversial archetypical masterwork depicting both the futility of battle as well as an endorsement of patriotic heroism. It fittingly serves as the signature feature of this display dedicated to Great Britain’s most important victory on the North America continent.
John Carlos CantÃº is a free-lance writer who reviews art for AnnArbor.com.
“1759: Britain’s Year of Victories” will continue through Oct. 9 at the University of Michigan William L. Clements Library, 909 S. University St. Exhibit hours are 1-4:45 p.m., Monday-Friday. For information, call 734-764-2347.
Top image: "Taking of Quebec, September 13, 1759." Hand colored engraving and etching published by Laurie & Whittle, 1797.
Middle image: "The Death of General Wolfe." Oil on canvas by Benjamin West, 1771.