This painting shows the great British naval hero Lord Nelson on the deck of his ship 'Victory' at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He lies dying after being shot by a French sniper.
The wounded Nelson is seen here supported by Captain Hardy with Dr. Beatty and other figures bending over him. The group form the centre of the composition. Nelson was carried below deck after he was shot and in reality died there several hours later. The present composition is more dramatic for the purposes of this painting though. Dr. Beatty and Hardy both spent time with Nelson in the hours leading to his death. Nelson and Hardy were particularly close. Nelson's last words to him are said to have been, ‘Kiss me Hardy’. Historians have speculated about the exact nature of the relationship between Hardy and Nelson. Regardless of the truth, for many, Nelson’s famous request is symbolic of the sometimes hidden queer history of life at sea.
Crowds flocked to see this work when West exhibited it in his house a few months after the Battle of Trafalgar. Many of the portraits were said to be taken from life. The event, however, is presented in an idealistic and theatrical manner.
The formula is similar to West's famous 'Death of Wolfe', now in the National Gallery of Canada. This had revolutionised British history painting over 30 years earlier, but 'The Death of Nelson' never enjoyed the same critical acclaim.