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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Thursday, February 27, 2014

When Would Paul Revere Have Painted Major Pitcairn?

This weekend the Skinner auction house is offering this watercolor painting of a British army officer on horseback, which is labeled at the bottom “Major John Pitcairn” and “P. Revere del.” for “Paul Revere drew this.”

According to a typewritten note glued to the back, this picture was owned by the furniture-maker Duncan Phyfe. Thus, this one artifact links three historic names famous during the Colonial Revival.

In his blog post on the painting, Skinner specialist Joel Bohy offered this hypothesis about how the painting came about:
Pitcairn was quartered at a home in Boston that belonged to Francis Shaw, Paul Revere’s neighbor. According to lore, the locals respected Pitcairn at first. Paul Revere may have sketched his portrait during late 1774 or early 1775 in preparation for an engraving. But it seems that before an engraving could be made, a revolution intervened.
I offered a different idea: that the image might date from the early republic. Yes, some sources say that Pitcairn earned the respect of locals in 1774-75, but he was still part of the very unpopular royal military occupation. But after the war that didn’t matter so much. Pitcairn had died at Bunker Hill, and his body was a tourist attraction under the Old North Church, which would certainly have prompted interest in him. That was when people began to say the major wasn’t such a bad guy. In addition, the American print media had expanded, producing new outlets for engravings like the Massachusetts Magazine.

But there doesn’t seem to be a way to date this painting since there’s no evidence of its origin besides that label. It surfaced in the early 1900s in the estate of Phyfe’s grandson.

TOMORROW: Exploring the details.


EJWitek said...

My first impression is this painting it's just too good to have been done by Revere, even though it's not that good. I am unaware of any other watercolor done by Revere and, quite frankly, I don't think Revere, whatever his talents as a silversmith, etc., was much of an artist. His engravings were heavily "borrowed." One just doesn't pick up a paint brush and do watercolors. At least, not someone of Revere's limited artistic talent.
My research indicates that the idea that Major Pitcairn was respected by pre-Revolutionary Boston has no foundation in contemporary sources. Indeed, Pitcairn hated the colonials and this attitude certainly had to have been perceived by Bostonians.
I remain extremely skeptical.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm skeptical, too, but then I'm always skeptical. The biggest argument against the image's authenticity is indeed the fact that it's a much better image than Revere ever managed in engravings, and there's no other example of him ever working in watercolor. I'll talk about that more tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Hmm... would this be the same Joel Bohy from the same auction house who declared a while back that a collection of flints they had for sale, found in a field in 1934, had obviously been dropped there on April 19, 1775?

R. Doctorow

Anonymous said...

I believe the idea that this image is from 1774-1775 would be correct. You see hi uniform coat has no collar on it. The clothing styles in cruder images like this reflect the times. If this was drawn in later years, the uniform style would have been different.

G. Thomas Fitzpatrick said...

My own concerns about the authenticity of this image center on what Pitcairn is shown wearing. Styles of uniforms for the army (not the marines) changed in 1768. The Admiralty usually followed the fashions of the Army for its Marines. Cape collars replaced the short standing collar we see here on his coat. It is true that officers might have continued to wear out old coats that no longer conformed to regulation by wearing them as frocks, saving the new regimental for "duty".

But I doubt that what Pitcairn is wearing is a pre-1768 warrant coat worn in 1774-5 as a frock. The chevrons on the sleeves and on the tails of the coat are not seen, in my memory, on other contemporary portraits of Marine officers.

His horse is not equipped with a Royal Marine saddle blanket. Nor are the holsters for his famous pistols present.

I would also point out that Pitcairn arrived in Boston in November along with his Marines. He was busy getting his men settled in into December. 1774-5 was a harsh winter, with the last known snowfall around April 9th. The last snow melted just in time for the battle, contributing to the sodden nature of the fields, which allowed Revere to escape from the first pair of British officers he met on his ride, as one's horse bogged down in the mud.

So when would Pitcairn have posed for this?

My best guess is that, if this was done by Revere, he did it after the war, from memory, and that the uniform Pitcairn is wearing is a sketchy attempt to show that the subject was a British officer, from a battalion with light facings.

Ornamental Peasant said...

For what it is worth the equestrian portion of the portrait appears generic 'officer/ military leader on horseback,' a type present in English painting and engraving from at least circa 1600.

The shoulders, hat, eyes and facial features, to me, bear a striking resemblance to those of Frederick William II of Prussia (Frederick the Great) in the numerous period reproductive engravings of a mounted portrait by Daniel Chodowiecki (1726 - 1801)of c. 1777; two examples of many are linked below: