This painting shows the death of Major-General James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham at the Battle of Quebec in 1759 during the Seven Years' War, known in the United States as the French and Indian War. Wolfe was killed by musket fire in the brief battle as he led the British forces to victory, setting in motion the conquest of Canada from the French. We see him lying on the battlefield as he is surrounded and comforted by a group of officers. His figure, creating the base of a pyramidal grouping that rises to the partially furled flag above, and his pale face are lit up with a Christ-like illumination, making him the visual and emotional center of the work. To the left a group of officers stand in attendance, conveying a distress reminiscent of depictions of the mourning of Christ. In the left foreground, a single Indigenous man sits, his chin in his hand, as if deep in thought. Two more officers on the right frame the scene, while in the background the opposing forces mill, and black smoke from the battlefield and storm clouds converge around the intersecting diagonal of the flag. A sense of drama is conveyed as the battle ends with a singular heroic sacrifice.
A number of officers are identifiable, as Captain Harvey Smythe holds Wolfe's arm, Dr. Thomas Hinde tries to staunch the general's bleeding, and Lieutenant Colonel Simon Fraser of the 78th Fraser Highlanders is shown in his company's tartan. While these identifiable portraits created a sense of accuracy and historical importance, almost all of them were not at the scene, and their inclusion reflects the artist's intention to compose an iconic image of a British hero. The Indigenous warrior has attracted much scholarly interpretation, including the argument that he represents the noble savage, a concept advanced by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who extolled the simpler and therefore nobler character of "primitive" peoples. At the same time, his inclusion also places the scene firmly within the New World, for the artist has carefully selected all the significant elements. For instance, in the background a British soldier is racing toward the group, as he carries the captured French flag. As historian Robert A. Bromley wrote, the overall effect is "so natural...and they come so near to the truth of the history, that they are almost true, and yet not one of them is true in fact."
West innovatively reinterpreted the historical painting by depicting a contemporary scene and clothing his figures in contemporary garb. Sir Joshua Reynolds, along with other notable artists and patrons, urged the artist to depict the figures in classical Roman clothing to lend the event greater dignity, but West replied, "The same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil of the artist." Infuriated at Wolfe's use of contemporary clothing, King George III declined to purchase the work, and the artist, subsequently, gave it to the Royal Academy where it became widely popular. William Woollett's engravings of the painting found an international audience, and West was commissioned to paint four more copies of the painting. The work, influencing the movement of many artists toward contemporary history painting, paved the way for David's Oath of the Tennis Court (1791) and John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence (1787-1819). Its cultural influence continued well into the modern era, as, during the British Empire, as historian Graeme Wynn noted it, "became the most powerful icon of an intensely symbolic triumph for British imperialism," and in 1921 the British donated the work to Canada in recognition of their service in World War I.