PAUL REVERE: Portrait of a Revolutionary War Hero

“Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”  The familiar opening lines of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem tell us the story of that night long ago when Revere rode through the towns warning sleeping colonists that the, “red coats” were coming.  But as we learned there is much more to the history of Paul Revere’s life that just his famous ride.

John Singleton Copley had emigrated to London by the time Paul Revere made his legendary midnight ride to alert the patriots that the British were coming. He had painted this portrait of Paul Revere some years earlier, when Revere was known as a silversmith with a flourishing Boston trade but not yet as an American hero. Although Revere had been active, even then, in revolutionary politics, Copley prudently kept the portrait free from any hint of controversy. In retrospect, we can see that the portrait captures the qualities that allowed Revere to play an instrumental role in colonial history: physical strength, moral certainty, intelligence, and unequivocal dedication to a cause.

In the American colonies, portraiture was generally considered more of a practical trade than a fine art, and a portrait’s success was largely measured by its likeness to the person portrayed. Because John Singleton Copley had an extraordinary talent for recording the physical characteristics of his subjects, he became the first American artist to achieve material success in his own country. Copley’s portraits endure as works of art because they transcend pure documentation to reveal clues to a sitter’s personality, profession, and social position. Most of the colonial citizens Copley depicted were clergymen, merchants, and their wives—the aristocracy of early America — but Paul Revere is the picture of an artisan who, like Copley himself, took pride in the work of his hands. The portrait cap- tures a critical moment in the silversmith’s work: he appears poised to engrave the gleaming surface of a teapot (presumably one he fashioned himself) using tools that rest on the table before him. But would a working craftsman have worn such a spotless linen shirt or a woolen waistcoat (even if left casually unfastened) with buttons made of gold? And could that highly polished, unscratched table possibly be a workbench? Apart from the engraving tools, the setting is free from a craftsman’s clutter or any other indication of an active workshop, which tells us that these are props to signify Revere’s profession. The fine mahogany table that distances Revere from the viewer and gives the workman in shirtsleeves an air of authority also serves an important compositional purpose. It forms the base of a pyramid, with the sitter’s brightly illuminated head at the apex. Emphasizing the mind that leads and controls the work of the hands, the triangular composition focuses attention on the discerning intelligence of the eye. Revere’s hand grasps his chin in a gesture of thoughtful analysis. Echoing this gesture, his other hand grasps the beautifully formed pot. So while the tools of his art are present, the composition makes it clear that the artistry of the work comes from the judgment of the mind and the discrimination of the eye. Revere’s hand is reflected—literally and symbolically—in the achievement of the finished work. This portrait, an idealized view of labor consistent with the democratic ideals of the New World, not only offers a record of Revere’s powerful physical presence but suggests the dignity and value of the work of the artisan.

Revere’s portrait remained in the family in an attic until the end of the nineteenth century, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” finally brought the patriot’s story back into the light. In 1930, Revere’s descendants donated Copley’s likeness of their famous ancestor to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.

Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley c. 1768                                      Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley c.  1768

September 5, 2013 PowerPoint Paul Revere Humanities Class 3

Next Week:

Read Common Sense by Thomas Paine  Chapter One.  We are going to have a tea party in class. Bring your goodies at 12:30pm and we will start our tea during lunch!  I am bringing the tea.

Have a blessed week!  -Mrs. S

“All praise to God, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms.”  Ephesians 1:3

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