This very large painting commemorates the death of Admiral Lord Nelson at the battle of Cape Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson was shot by a sniper on board the French ship Redoubtable. He must have been an easy target in his undress uniform of Vice Admiral, despite the smoke of battle.
Trafalgar was an important victory for the British over the French and Spanish during the Napoleonic Wars. Maclise presented this event in a theatrical way to arouse sympathy not only for Nelson, but for all of the wounded and killed.
He included two black crew members to make sure the painting was historically accurate. The black seaman in the centre of the picture is particularly important as he points to Nelson's assassin. Maclise researched his painting thoroughly, interviewing survivors of the battle and reading through the records of the British ship Victory.
The painting was produced between 1859 and 1864 at a time when Victorian Britain chose to celebrate moments of national pride, over fifty years after the event took place.
"The Death of Nelson" is the finished study for one of the paintings decorating the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, and was commissioned in 1857. "The Death of Nelson" and its companion piece the "Meeting of Wellington and Blücher at Waterloo" were chosen because they commemorated the two most important victories of Britain against France in the Napoleonic Wars.
Maclise arranged the scene as a frieze, integrating the figures in a long narrow format. The wounded Nelson is supported by Captain Hardy with Dr. Beatty and other figures bending over him 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.
Despite the crowded composition, Maclise took great care to depict individuals' postures and expressions. Determined to present details that were both convincing and accurate, he talked to survivors of the battle and tracked down naval equipment used at the time.
The inclusion of two black people in the scene - a seaman in the centre of the painting and a cook to the left - was in part a matter of historical accuracy. The Victory's master book of 1805 refers to a small number of foreigners amongst crew members and mentioned that "some must have been Negroes … Two give Africa as their birthplace".
The black seaman plays a key role in the painting not just because he is in the centre, but because he points to Lord Nelson's assassin as well. The black seaman is not a symbol of "otherness" or difference of identity and culture; rather his presence serves to strengthen British identity.
Like other historical paintings, "The Death of Nelson" not only commemorates an important event, but also fulfils a didactic purpose: the representation of black people and women together with Lord Nelson suggests that Victorian society was a harmonious whole, despite its class divisions and inequalities.
In reality 19th century black sailors in British fleets were poorly treated. Although they usually worked in the lower ranks of the ship's company as cooks, deck hands or stewards, they were not slaves but free sailors. The hardship of living at sea meant that the life of a sailor was less attractive and for this reason black people were easily accepted.