J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Bottom Line on the Pitcairn Painting?

I’ve been discussing this small watercolor painting whose label says it shows Maj. John Pitcairn and was created by Paul Revere. That picture appears to have been first reported in Art in America in December 1922. At that time it was paired with another, also credited to Revere and labeled “A View of South Bridge, Lexington.”

Now I didn’t know Lexington had a significant or picturesque south bridge in the early republic. For someone unaware of local Revolutionary history but playing off the buzzwords of the late-1800s Colonial Revival, “the South Bridge at Lexington” might make a nice bookend with the North Bridge at Concord. That sort of detail keeps me skeptical of the picture’s authenticity, even as I acknowledge that the Massachusetts Magazine and other periodicals published a lot of prints of bridges in the early republic.

In her 1942 biography Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, Esther Forbes noted the “charming water-color of Major Pitcairn on horseback” and the bridge painting in a footnote only, saying, “as I cannot feel [they] have been completely verified, I have passed them by.” The pictures have since been in private hands, not in a museum or library, and I don’t know of any more recent author who’s discussed them in connection with Revere or Pitcairn.

When I look into a historical mystery like this painting, I want to find a pretty definite answer. Evidence that the portrait almost certainly was painted by Revere or evidence that it could not have been. But I didn’t find anything so certain. Even the 1810 newspaper scraps inside the frame doesn’t mean the label is accurate. In the end I remain skeptical mostly because of the fact that Revere isn’t known to have painted any other portrait and his engravings don’t show so much illustrative skill as is evident in this picture. But there’s still a lot of ambiguity.

Markets are usually pretty good at dealing with uncertainty, and I think the art market has already factored in the odds that this picture’s label is accurate. In 2012 Christie’s sold a copy of Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre for over $145,000. A print is, by definition, not a unique item. But that one was clearly authentic.

In contrast, the Pitcairn watercolor is said to be the only portrait Revere painted. It’s perhaps the only picture of Maj. Pitcairn near the end of his life by someone who knew him. It’s a unique item. And yet Skinner has estimated its price at only $20-30,000. If we could be definite about its origin, then that price would probably be much, much higher. Or much lower.

As it is, whoever wins this auction will be living with an interesting-looking little picture, and living with the mystery behind it. Which for some people could make for a better story.

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