During the end the 18th century, American art not only helped fuel the fire for independence, it preserved those days of struggle as an empirical foundation for future generations of Americans. Examples of paintings of the revolution abound. Etchings by American Hero Paul Revere stirred America’s will to fight, while paintings by John Trumbell helped preserve the events and people that lead America to its independence. Although using different genres, each artist painted from a similar perspective, that of staunch Patriotism. Yet, there are two sides to any conflict, and one must take both sides perspectives into account. It is important to remember that history is often subjectively portrayed with many inherent biases.
Propoganda and war go hand and hand. The object is to make a cause seem “just” or “righteous” while making the opposing side seem as if they are spawned from the root of all evil. Propagandized material often results in exaggerations or blatant mistruths. This is the case prior to the onset of the Revolutionary War. Paul Revere’s etching of the Boston Massacre is a perfect example of how art can be used to sway public opinion. The etching’s iconography describes British redcoats firing on well-dressed men and women peacefully protesting England’s taxation without representation. Colonials lie dying and bleeding as the British continue to fire with smug demeanors. As the authors Robert Devine, T.H. Breen, George M. Fredrickson, and R. Hal Williams wrote: “In subsequent editions, the blood spurting from the dying Americans became more conspicuous.”(Divine, Breen, Fredrickson, and Williams: 137) The etching became a bestseller and spurred intense reaction among colonials. The British, confronted with the possibility of a mass armed revolt, were forced to move their army to an island in Boston Harbor. The etching became a symbol to the colonial Americans of British tyranny and fueled their desire to revolt. (Divine, Breen, Fredrickson, and Williams)
Examples of art works showing the British perspective of the conflict are practically non-existent. It is possible the war was of little significance to the British, or if it was, after losing they were not going to admit it. Another theory is that few people commissioned artwork from a lost conflict. It was something to be forgotten not glorified. One example of British propaganda from before the revolution is the etching titled, The Bostonians Paying the Excise Man(1774) by an unknown artist. The etching’s iconography entails “unruly colonists forcing a tax collector they had tarred and feathered to drink scalding tea.”(World Book: 277) This is taking place directly in front of a tree labeled “liberty tree” with a poster of the stamp act turned upside down. From a branch of the tree hangs a rope used for hanging and in the background to the far left colonists are depicted dumping British overboard.
The etching, The Bostonian Paying the Excise Man, is an obvious tool of British propaganda in reaction to The Boston Tea Party. The etching portrays the colonists as a group of rogue unreasonable anarchists. The Stamp Act poster on the tree labeled “liberty tree” represents how the British were reasonable with the colonists when they repealed the Stamp Act. While the rope hanging from the tree is meant to condemn the colonists actions and questions whether the dumping of tea was an act of liberty or a prevention of other’s liberty. The theme focuses on the reasonable British versus the unreasonable Americans.
Fine Art was seen by many to be superfluous at a time when they believed a practical approach was needed to expand the new nation. As a result of this reasoning, fine art had difficulty establishing itself in the colonies. (Koja: 55) Thomas Jefferson, in 1788, wrote that painting was too expensive for this new nation and was therefore useless and unnecessary. He believed, although art was worth looking at, it was not worth studying. As late as 1817, President John Adams wrote, “is it possible to enlist the ‘fine arts’ on the side of truth, of virtue, of piety, or even honor? From the dawn of history they have been prostituted to the service of superstition and despotism.”(Koja:55)
The sentiment following the war forced artists such as John Trumbell to document the nation’s young history and prevent it from ever being forgotten. Trumbell wrote to Jefferson in 1879:
“The greatest motives I had…for continuing my pursuit of painting has been the wish of commemorating the great events of our country’s revolution. I am fully aware that the profession practiced is frivolous, little useful to society, and unworthy of man who has talents for more serious pursuits. But, to preserve and diffuse the memory of the noblest series of actions which ever presented themselves to the history of man;…[and to preserve] the personal resemblance of those who have been the great actors in those illustrious scenes, were objects which gave a dignity to the profession, peculiar to my situation.” (Koja:55)
Trumbell transcended the current mentality, grasping the importance of the events of the revolution and their relevance to future generations.
John Trumbell was born in 1756, the son of the governor of Connecticut, with a seemingly innate urge to paint. He served as an aid to George Washington during the revolution. This conflict would become inspiration and subject of his greatest work. After the war he realized that the current environment in America did not provide him the opportunity to hone his skills. Trumbell then moved to London in 1785, to study under his compatriot Benjamin West, who had moved to England years before and had achieved great success. Upon his return to America in 1789, Trumbell turned to painting the story of the American Revolution. Trumbell set out to create a series of fourteen pictures, each depicting major events of the Revolutionary War. (Richardson:78)
Trumbell’s paintings, The Battle of Bunker Hill and The of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, reflect Baroque influences. His use of color and portrayal of movement is very reminiscent of Peter Paul Rubens. Both of these works were completed in 1786 and have similar themes. Each depict decisive turns in the war, which were brought on by the deaths of key figures. The iconography of Montgomery describes the moment of General Montgomery’s death and its result, the collapse of the plan and an eventual retreat. The enemy is entering the scene as the Patriots watch their commander die before their own eyes. Trumbell’s The Battle of Bunker Hill depicts the moment when the patriots ran out of ammunition, which allowed the British to take the hill. As the British take the hill, General Warren is shot through the head by a musket ball. Warren’s friend, Colonel Small, grabs the musket of a British soldier prepared to deliver Warren’s coupe de grace. All around these men stand patriots, maintaining futile resistance with their empty guns. In the center of the action is General Putnum who, with reluctance, orders the patriots retreat. (Silverman:466)
The two paintings both follow the traditional form of history painting. They
both envelope a theme of self-sacrifice for a greater good. These paintings both seem to have Christian overtones. Both Montgomery and Warren are depicted as Christ-like figures, where Jesus’ body is depicted lifeless and drooping. Trumbell also used Baroque diagonal lines and chiaroscuro for the relative contrasting of light and dark as well as to create spatial depth and volumetric forms. Trumbell was also in touch with the developing romantic sense of nature as portrayed in his backgrounds. Trumbell used nature as a correlative to action, with his use of blasted trees and lowering smokey-gray skies.(Silverman:467) Trumbell balanced his attention to detail, many times using actual participants as models for his works, and the desire for grandeur.(Silverman:466)
Art played a significant role in the both provoking and documenting the Revolutionary War. The etching by Paul Revere of the Boston Massacre is an example of how art impacts a society. Its impact before the war was one of spurring outrage against the British. More importantly, it represents the foundation of America. We are a nation of free speech and personal freedom; a people who will rise up and defeat any power which oppresses these freedoms. The etching depicts the first Americans to die for these ideals.
The paintings of Trumbell have preserved the Revolution for the future generations of Americans. They allow for Americans to see their founding fathers in action. History portrayed through merely words can often times be dry and boring. The paintings of Trumbell and other Revolutionary War artists breathe life into the revolution. The visual depictions allow for the audience to see history as not just a collection of names and dates, but as actual faces. These were people, just like you and me, who rose up against a perceived tyrant, fought for liberty and won. The pride instilled from our past inspires many Americans to fight on for continued liberty and freedom.