Quebec artist Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté created this sketch for The Death of Montcalm in 1902 at a time when Quebec artists were returning to reinterpret this period of history. ((Musée National des Beaux Arts du Québec))

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham has come alive again on canvas at the Musée National des Beaux Arts du Québec.

The 250th anniversary of the battle, fought just a few metres from the Quebec City museum, is being commemorated with an exhibit called The Taking of Quebec.

It collects images that depict the 1759 battle on the Plains of Abraham, the Battle of Ste. Foy and the aftermath of these battles.

But the paintings, most of them created years after the battle, bear little relation to what actually happened, said Daniel Drouin, curator of early art for the Musée National des Beaux Arts du Québec.

Instead they represent the politics of the time and sometimes reflect Europeans' outright ignorance about North America, he said.

An 18th century French artist was quite cavalier in his depiction of the death of the Marquis de Montcalm, the general who commanded the forces of New France.

Quebec, with palm trees

"He decided to put Montcalm's bed on the ground just in front of a Roman tent and in the engraving, the engraver added a palm [tree]. It's absolutely not the reality of Quebec City," Drouin told CBC News.

A British painter created scenes of a destroyed Quebec, based on the destruction he may have seen in European cities during the same war. In fact, the town was not damaged.

Nor is Benjamin West's famous painting The Death of General Wolfe any closer to being historically accurate, as it shows the British general dying surrounded by officers and supporters.

"It's not connected to the reality of things, because Wolfe died [on the battlefield] only with one aide-de-campe. The officer was not with him at this moment. And we can recognize an Amer-Indian at left, but no [native] was in the Wolfe camp, absolutely none," Drouin said.

This painting reflects the political atmosphere of the 18th century, when it was created, he said.

"The Battle of Quebec was one of the most important battles during the Seven Years War because that was the occasion for Great Britain to obtain a very large country," he said.

British myth-making

"Then during the 18th century that was the occasion for Great Britain to magnify this battle and to create myths."

While The Death of General Wolfe is a huge painting, works about the same battle done by Quebec artists such as Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté in the early 1900s are just small sketches.

At that time, when Quebec had become capital of a province in the new country of Canada, Quebec artists felt moved to paint and talk freely about these important events in their history, Drouin said.

"And because that was a very touchy subject those creations kept just at the sketch state — never an official decided to command a large painting of the subject," he said.

The exhibit includes 40 works by French, British, American and Quebec artists from the18th, 19th and early 20th century.

It is being held in partnership with the National Battlefields Commission, which cancelled a re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham set for Quebec City this summer because of concerns it would arouse sovereigntist sentiment.

The Taking of Quebec is on display at the Musée National des Beaux Arts until September.


British marine painter Francis Swaine created this painting called A View of the Launching Place Above the Town of Quebec in 1763, based on sketches by an officer who was on the scene. ((Library and Archives Canada) )