Opinion  August 19, 2021  Mary M. Lane

Reframed: Paul Revere's “Boston Massacre”

Courtesy Collection of the Boston Athanaeum.

Paul Revere, Boston Massacre, 1770. Engraving, hand-colored.

The July-August 2021 Focus for Reframed is American Heat.

In the special collection of brittle works on paper at the Boston Athenaeum lies Paul Revere’s 1770 hand-colored engraving, The Bloody Massacre. Revere (1735-1818) is best known to Americans today as the hero in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s rousing, though historically inaccurate 1861 poem, "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere."

Yet in 1770, Revere was best known as an engraver, industrialist, and patriot in America’s nascent revolution. The March 5, 1770 violent clash commonly referred to as the Boston Massacre is portrayed in Revere’s petite, 10 by 9 inch work.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

John Singleton Copley, Paul Revere, 1768. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The conflict began when fifty Bostonians protested the large presence of British soldiers protecting enforcers of recently increased taxes on the colonists. The situation grew violent and eight protestors were wounded by gunfire while five others died.

In the Athenaeum's special collection department, the work’s fragile paper and discolored pigments are sheltered from light and heat. Yet as the condition of the work has deteriorated over 250 years, our understanding of the violent events it portrays have changed and improved.

This should "prompt us to ask questions about how historical narratives are constructed, written, and rewritten," the Athenaeum’s assistant curator, Virginia Badgett, tells Art & Object. "History is not static, but revised and repurposed over time," she adds.

Revere’s engraving is, of course, an artwork, and he meant it to serve as political art to grow sympathy for the Revolution.

Consequently, Massacre, contains purposeful inaccuracies both relatively innocuous and significantly problematic.

Courtesy the Met. Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1910. 10.125.103.

Paul Revere, Detail of The Boston Massacre, 1770.

Both the crescent moon in the night sky and the small dog in the work’s foreground are patently symbolic, a point widely understood by both Revere’s contemporaries and scholars today. The moon is a nod to the time of the massacre, approximately 10 p.m., while small canines in late eighteenth-century British art symbolized loyalty to just causes. As Revere’s dog is standing off against the king’s army, he or she is guarding the just cause of the Bostonians.

Two other artistic licenses employed by Revere prove more problematic.

While all of the revolutionaries in Revere’s work are white, a man of Indigenous American and African descent, Crispus Attucks, was first shot and killed during the conflict. In other words, Attucks was the first American killed in the Revolution.

Courtesy the Met. Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1910. 10.125.103.

Paul Revere, Detail of The Boston Massacre, 1770. 

Furthermore, while Revere depicted the revolutionaries as peaceful and the British as bellicose, reality proves quite different. Historical documents show that while the American Revolution’s goal was certainly just, it was the colonists who provoked the British into firing after the rabble-rousers pelted snowballs and stones at the military.

In our current times, these latter two facts prove altogether fascinating in evaluating artistic portrayals of protests for justice in contemporary America.

About the Author

Mary M. Lane

Mary M. Lane is an art market journalist, an art historian, and the author of Hitler's Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich. Reach her on Twitter: MaryLaneWSJ and Instagram: MaryLaneAuthor

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