This ambitious canvas, monumental in scale and composition, depicts the Battle of La Hogue, a crucial naval action of the War of the Grand Alliance in which the English and Dutch fleets successfully defeated a large French invasion in May 1692. West first approached the subject in 1780, in a closely-related work, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy of that year (now National Gallery of Art, Washington). As an historical event that had taken place just under 100 years previously, rather than a more recent historical episode, it was perhaps an unusual choice, although not unique since in the Royal Academy show of 1780, the same year in which the first version of West's La Hogue was exhibited, the little-known artist Thomas Mitchell showed as number 6 in the catalogue The burning of the French fleet at La Hogue, 1692.
The battle, or more accurately a series of battles, was fought off Cape La Hogue near Cherbourg and the English victory ended the French threat of restoring James II (a Catholic) to the throne. Depicted in the painting are both the battle's hero, Admiral George Rooke (the figure with the sword in the small boat), and the exiled King James II (standing on the distant cliff). As a personal touch, West anachronistically added a portrait of his friend William Williams, an early supporter in Philadelphia, behind the figure of Rooke.
Depictions of modern history subjects were a rather recent innovation, for which West himself was largely responsible. His Death of Wolfe had been applauded for its relative realism. Some conservative connoisseurs, including the King himself, had urged West to paint the figures in classical attire, envisioning the great victory on the Plains of Abraham as a battle of Roman grandeur. West, who had made his fame with paintings depicting classical antiquity, preferred a more contemporary approach, and he dressed Wolfe and his troops in military uniforms. While not exactly a radical approach, it was highly innovative, and West's approach to history painting was adopted by the majority of his contemporaries.
West approached the Battle of La Hogue in much the same way. An event which had occurred some eighty years earlier, the battle's importance in English history was nearly equal that of the conquest of Canada, and West hoped to capture the drama of the event. His attention to detail was exacting, and an anecdote relates the lengths to which West went to assure the realism of the composition. William Dunlap, a pupil of West who was in his studio in the 1780s, noted that 'an admiral took [West] to Spithead and to give him a lesson on the effect of smoke in a naval battle, ordered several ships of the fleet to manoeuvre as in action and fire broadsides, while the painter made notes (von Erffa and Staley, op. cit., p. 209).' The paintings of van de Velde must have also been an inspiration, innumerable in English collections of the time; in fact among his last paintings were depictions of the same battle (see M.S. Robinson, The Paintings of the Willem van de Veldes, 1990, I, p. 216).
On the 11th of May, 1806, the painter Joseph Farington (1747-1821) visited the studio of Benjamin West, who until recently had been the President of the Royal Academy before his resignation was forced by a group of Academicians, including his fellow American, John Singleton Copley. There Farington viewed among other works a set of three large history paintings, of the type that had made West's reputation. West had planned the exhibition as a pointed reminder to the members of the Academy of the powers of their former head; it proved a huge success, with some 6,500 entrance cards issued and was viewed by-at least according to West's calculation-some 30,000 art lovers. The canvases formed a triad of great British military victories, the just completed Death of Lord Nelson (now Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), and versions of two of his most famous pictures, the Death of Wolfe (now Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto) and the present Battle of La Hogue. Farington noted that West had hung all three together, and that the '[Wolfe] was painted 37 years ago,-- and the battle of La Hogue 25 years since' (see The Diary of Joseph Farington, New Haven and London 1982, ed. Kathryn Cave, vol VII, p. 2757).
Like the Death of Wolfe, the Battle of La Hogue was thus a reprise of one of West's earlier and greatest successes. The first version of the painting had been painted for Richard, Lord Grosvenor, who owned a group of five large-scale works by West (including the Wolfe) depicting scenes of 'modern' English history. The composition was an immediate success. A review of the Royal Academy exhibition of 1780, the year the picture was first exhibited publicly, noted that The Battle of La Hogue 'exceeds all that ever came from Mr. West's pencil.' It was engraved by Wollett the next year and a drawn copy with variations was made by the Dutch artist Dirk Langendijk to serve as the model of another engraving of 1783.
The popular notices for the painting of course only underlined the desirability for West to repeat the composition. Although it was exhibited in 1780, it seems that the Washington painting may have been painted as early as 1774-75 (von Effra and Staley, op. cit., who outline the complicated dating of the picture). While the Washington canvas is neither signed nor dated, the present version is signed and is dated twice: B. West 1778, Retouched 1806. It seems reasonable, therefore, to assume that at least the preliminary work was started on the present version as early as 1778, and only finally finished by West himself in 1806.
That it was a work that was completed over a number of years is certain, as is attested to by John Trumbull. West had given his student Trumbull, a fellow American who had re-entered his studio in January 1784 (after his expulsion from England under suspicion as an American spy), the task of completing most of the work on this second version. In his autobiographical Account of Paintings, John Trumbull recalled the Battle of La Hogue from the year 1785 during his apprenticeship with West:
The Battle of La Hogue. Copied for Mr. West, from his original picture-the same size, both on a Cloth-12 inches longer, & 6 inches higher:-- this extra size is left equally on every side, with a view to enlarge the Composition for a Companion to the Copy of Wolfe:-- This Copy was painted up entirely at once, and will only be retouched and harmonized by Mr. West:-- the universal Shadow was blue black prepared by Jenkins, by means of which the union & silvery tone were obtained-this picture was begun by Mr. Raphael West, who was soon fatigued and gave it up;-- it was finished by me in less than Sixty days, and given to Mr. West-it now (1813) hangs in his painting Room, having been continued to the whole surface of the Cloth by him, and is valued at Guineas 600.
Trumbull's account helps to explain the rather enigmatic signature and dating of the present work. It seems that West must have given his son Raphael the job of starting the present version of the Battle of La Hogue, a task that he was unable, or unwilling, to complete. If it was started as early as 1778, as is supposed, it must have been left aside for several years until 1785 when it was taken up by Trumbull, who finished his work in two months.
The present canvas is larger than Lord Grosvenor's version, as alluded to by Trumbull: 4 larger in height and some 11 inches in width. These areas were left to West to fill, to continue his compositional invention. There are a number of new figures on the left, and there are other slight variations from the earlier painting (such as the amusing detail of giving the bald Frenchman on the right a shock of hair in the present painting). It seems likely that West would have filled in these lacunae when Trumbull finished his work, thus circa 1784. But again, the signature notes that it was 'retouched' in 1806, so it is likely that West worked on it further that year, no doubt to bring it into line so that it might be exhibited with his Death of Nelson, for which he had (justifiably) such high hopes.
The third picture of the group, another Death of Wolfe, appears to have been painted by an anonymous studio assistant and finished by West in much the same way.
In a very real way, the present Battle of La Hogue epitomizes West's importance as the mentor and supporter of the younger generation of American (as well as, in fact, British) artists. It was almost immediately after finishing this painting under West's direction that Trumbull became confident enough to begin in the fall of 1785 his great series of paintings depicting scenes of the American Revolution, beginning with the Death of General Warren at Bunker Hill (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT). West's encouragement and inspiration are evident throughout that picture, and his praise of it was fulsome (he regarded it as the best painting of a modern battle ever made). No less canny an eye than Sir Joshua Reynolds made the mistake of confusing the artists; when looking at the Bunker Hill, he said to West that it was 'better colored than your works usually are,' at which point West corrected his elder and gave Trumbull the credit.
Trumbull himself realized the importance of West's example, writing to his father that his 'pictures are almost the only examples in Art of that particular style which is necessary to me-pictures of modern times and manners. In almost every other instance the art has been confined to the History, Dresses, Customes, &c. of antiquity.' In another letter to his father, he was even more explicit that this painting of the Battle of La Hogue was the starting point for his own work: copying it was to be 'of infinite use if I should live to execute the plan I have in view -- of painting a Series of Pictures of our Country, particularly the great Events of the revolution.'