Artists of Lake George: Benjamin West
To achieve lasting fame, one must not only commit heroic acts, but make certain they’re not forgotten. Only a fool would leave it to chance, or so Sir William Johnson must have thought when he commissioned Benjamin West to paint “General Johnson Saving a Wounded Officer from the Tomahawk of a North American Indian” in London in the 1760s. According to Johnson’s most recent biographer, Fintan O’Toole, Johnson communicated his wishes to the artist through one of his sons, who lived in London from 1765 to 1767.
Johnson had already accomplished his heroic deed, defeating the French at the Battle of Lake George in 1755. That year, Johnson marched to the head of the lake with 3000 colonials and 250 Indians in order to assert Britain’s claim on Northern New York. He successfully repelled an attack by Baron de Dieskau, the French commander, and established a British beachhead in this contested territory. “I am building a Fort at this lake which the French call St. Sacrement,” he wrote in September, 1755. “I have given it the name of Lake George, not only in honor to his Majesty but to ascertain his undoubted dominion here.” The scene portrayed in “General Johnson Saving a Wounded Officer from the Tomahawk of a North American Indian,” is, ostensibly, based upon an incident that took place during the battle, in which Johnson rescued the wounded Dieskau from the vengeance of the Indians. The painting “turns the story into an allegory of an ideal America,” writes O’Toole. “The Mohawk warrior is beautiful, noble and roused by righteous anger, but Johnson’s restraining arm calms and controls him. Indian nobility and vigor are fused with the benevolent restraint of European civility to create the perfect temperament for a new continent.” “General Johnson Saving a Wounded Officer from the Tomahawk of a North American Indian” is now in the collection of the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, U.K.