Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsAfter the news of the death of Cook arrived in London, a number of artists, printmakers, illustrators sought to depict this moment. As we know, there were competing accounts of the event. And so certainly in many respects, these image-makers were actively participating in creating an account of the death of Cook. So you had depictions of Cook which showed him as a peacemaker. You also had depictions of Cook that show him more as an aggressor, although it's safe to say that the version or the image of Cook that comes to dominate is one of Cook as more of a peacemaker, as more of a heroic victim.
Skip to 1 minute and 7 secondsWhat Zoffany is interested in is really zooming in on that climactic moment of the death itself, capturing that, if you like, in the language of Greek theatre. Cook's face itself is much less of a likeness and much more resembles, actually, a Greek tragic mask. This wasn't a noble, heroic death as often he has depicted him. Nonetheless, often he does depict him in this much more-- he ennobles, if you like this, rather ignoble demise of Cook. So rather than having him face down in the water, effectively drowning, he has him in a pose that draws directly on classical statuary.
Skip to 2 minutes and 1 secondHe clearly drew on actual artefacts that he builds into the picture, so the Hawaiians very impressive headdress, feathered headdress and cape, which he would have seen actual examples of either, in Joseph Banks' collection or in public exhibitions in London.
Zoffany's The Death of Captain James Cook
In this video curator Allison Goudie describes the depiction of Cook in this painting by Johann Zoffany.