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 09, 2019

Paul Revere’s Crispus Attucks as a Man of Color

People often say that Paul Revere’s print of the Boston Massacre leaves out Crispus Attucks.

I’ve questioned that received wisdom, pointing to copies of the print in which a particular face in the lower left appears to be painted a shade darker than all the other faces. Often that figure is also painted with two bleeding chest wounds, matching Dr. Benjamin Church’s description of Attucks’s body. (The figure is lying supine on the ground, mostly hidden by the crowd, with his face shown upside-down.)

Earlier this year I ran across the digital copy of Revere’s print that belongs to the Free Library of Philadelphia. Here’s the corner of that print showing the wounded and the crowd.

In this print, the figure in question clearly has brown skin and two wounds on his chest. Thus, at least some Revere Massacre prints, and perhaps quite a number, were colored to depict Attucks as an individual man of color.

That conclusion brings up other questions. Was that figure deliberately painted differently in different prints? If so, was that the artists’ choice or the customers’?


Charles Bahne said...

Maybe 20-30 years ago now, the Bostonian Society had an exhibit where they compared several different copies of Revere's Massacre print. I think they had reproductions of about 10 copies on display. There were significant differences in the colorings. No one else seems to remember that exhibit, not even the Bostonian Society staff.

The general consensus is that there were several different colorists. Christian Remick is the most famous, but by no means the only one.

Clarence Brigham's book on Revere's engravings list 36 extant copies of the copperplate engraving that Brigham himself was able to inspect, and he says he didn't even try to make a comprehensive list of every surviving copy. This is in addition to later restrikes and reproductions. Plus, Revere made a later "woodcut" (actually made from a type metal plate) of the Massacre scene, that was issued in almanacs and broadsides, all of which were apparently uncolored.

Brigham does note that many surviving copies of the print are still in their original frames, which he believes were sold by Revere himself.

As I was writing up this comment, I looked at about 20 copies of the print that I've been able to download from various online sources over the years. Looking at the figure above the one that John has identified as Attucks -- that is, at the victim who is being carried away in someone's arms -- there were huge variations in the color of his clothing. His jacket ranged from light brown to dark brown to light blue to dark blue to light green to red and almost black; his shirt from white to light brown to light blue to light green to yellow-green and dark green. Five of the views had blood dripping on the shirt; six had blood dripping from the shirt to the ground; and seven had pools of blood on the ground -- and the blood came in all combinations of those three choices.

Just one of those copies I viewed had a penned inscription added, "Cold. by Christn Remick".

The Philadelphia library copy strikes me for the almost cartoonish, amateurish treatment of the clouds of gunsmoke, with heavy brown lines outlining the smoke. I've never seen another copy with that feature. Many other aspects of its coloring also appear different than the other copies I've seen.

Mary M said...

Interesting. I was unaware of the controversy. But I just checked my print. I have one of those copies that they struck from Revere's plates, and the state of MA sold, maybe 15 years ago.

Totally a white guy in my print. And none of them look of color. I wish they'd thought that through. I don't know who did the paints.

J. L. Bell said...

Mary M., the old prints vary greatly in their coloring, so it's possible that the artists adding color to the recent restrike prints were replicating a copy that didn't give that figure darker skin. But also at that time it was widely accepted that the prints didn't show Attucks. The wider availability of color reproductions on the web has changed the available data.

J. L. Bell said...

Based on reading, I always envisioned Christian Remick hand-painting prints for the few special customers who were able to pay extra. But as I gathered and lined up more colored copies for my talk this month, I saw such variation that I agree there had to be a bunch of colorists.

In fact, I'm now picturing the older Revere and Remick children, particularly the girls, seated around a table churning out colored prints. (Of course, museums and libraries are more likely to share their colored prints on the web, which might make them seem more common than they really were.)

Gregory Theberge also collected a bunch of Massacre print images as part of advising Don Troiani on his painting of the Massacre. Perhaps we should pool our files and check them for consistency.

I'm also wondering if the Massacre prints can be the basis of a high-school history lesson about finding and evaluating sources.