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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Saturday, March 04, 2017

When I Paint My Massacre

This week the history painter Don Troiani unveiled his depiction of the Boston Massacre. Troiani is known for his careful research, which includes collecting period artifacts and clothing. He was also assisted by some of the New England reenactors who depict this event outside the Old State House museum [in years when it’s not going to be 10°F].

Note the soldiers’ headgear. Cpl. William Wemys (in the dark surtout or overcoat at the left) and Pvt. Hugh White (next to him) were from the 29th Regiment’s regular infantry companies while the other men were from the grenadier company. Often they’ve all been lumped together as grenadiers.

In recent years researchers have speculated, based on the Henry Pelham engraving and on British army paperwork, that the grenadiers of the 29th wore cocked hats like regular infantrymen since their distinctive tall caps didn’t arrive before they sailed for Boston. However, new research suggests the grenadiers of the 29th did receive their caps in time, so Troiani depicted those men wearing period caps.

Troiani also made an artistic choice to depict the scene from behind the soldiers, putting the viewer literally on their side of the confrontation. We don’t see the men and boys—some aggressive, some not—being shot off the side of the canvas.

The press release announcing this painting seems to lean even further to the side of the soldiers. It says of Pvt. White, “Having witnessed Edward Garrick verbally assault Lieutenant – Captain [sic] John Goldfinch, he reprimanded the youth with a strike to his head with his firelock.” Thus, Garrick’s rude words become an “assault” while White’s actual violence is a “reprimand.”

The same paragraph goes on to quote John Adams’s description of the crowd that gathered in response to the violence: a “motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.” But it doesn’t cite Adams by name or note that he was speaking as the soldiers’ defense attorney—i.e., that description was one side of a courtroom argument. What, we might ask, would this same event look like from the other side?

Troiani usually makes his paintings available as prints through W. Britain, and I assume this one will appear there soon. Meanwhile, the research behind this painting will also be on display tonight at this year’s reenactment. [ADDENDUM: Alas, canceled because of the frigid forecast.]


J. L. Bell said...

In other news about Boston Massacre images, the Boston Public Library has shared a new scan of the overhead view of King Street credited to Paul Revere. Zoom in on it here.

Ben Edwards said...

Really enjoyed this post! Back in the days when I had my printing business in Connecticut Don Troiani was a client. Although we didn't produce his art prints, we did print the full color sell sheets he used to market them. Fascinating guy and his military collection is wonderful. He once let me hold a pair of field glasses used by Colonel Paul Joseph Revere (grandson of Paul Revere) at the Battle of Gettysburg. Colonel Revere was wounded in that battle on July 2 and died on July 4, moments after hearing the news of the Union victory. If I recall correctly Don produced a nice print a number of years ago on the Battle of Bunker Hill. His limited edition prints sell out very quickly. Would love to see him do a painting and print on Paul Revere's Ride!

Charles Bahne said...

Thanks for the news about the BPL's new scan of the Revere plan, John. This is a great resource, and I had only seen low-resolution images until now.

I see that, as part of the package, BPL has separated the original plan from the board it was mounted on, and provided a scan of the back of the original paper. For years I had read that the "key" to the numbers and letters on the front of the plan had been written (by Revere??) on the back of the paper, and that, once the paper had been mounted on the board, it was no longer possible to read the key. Now that the paper and the board have been separated, however, one can see that there is no key written on the reverse. One mystery solved, but another created.

What happened to the original key -- if indeed, there ever was one?

J. L. Bell said...

I haven't found a key mentioned in descriptions of that image going back to the late 1800s, when Boston librarian Mellen Chamberlain first acquired it.