Sidetracked: Portrait of the Artist

Portrait of the Artist

To draw Paul Revere at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is to see him as a celebrity, and to be treated as a bit of one, too.

“Hey, that’s in our library!” kids say as they enter the new and beautiful American Wing of the MFA and face Paul Revere’s portrait welcoming them.

“Look, an artist!” and “I’m sorry, may I pass in front of you?” people say politely as I stand before the painting, drawing in my sketchbook. On the streets, there is no such interest or courtesy.

Paul Revere was painted by the preeminent colonial artist John Singleton Copley in 1768, seven years before his famous ride. Copley was 30 years old at the time and he painted portraits of many of the cast of characters in Boston’s revolutionary era. Many, such as John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Dr. Joseph Warren, hang in the same gallery as Revere’s portrait. The paintings of Loyalists and Tories (the British and supporters of the British) are kept apart and shown in another room entirely.

Revere’s portrait is unusual in its lack of formality. He wears no wig and is dressed casually. It’s an idealized portrait of a successful tradesman. The well-regarded silversmith and engraver looks up from his work in the painting, perhaps as he did when Copley ordered frames for his miniature paintings a few years earlier.

John Singleton Copley didn’t get involved in politics, although his family favored the British. He stated he was “desirous of avoiding every imputation of party spirit. Political contests being neighther pleasing to an artist or advantageous to the Art itself.” Copley was not untouched by Boston’s upheavals, however. An angry mob formed outside his house once, looking for a Loyalist counselor who had indeed been there earlier. And the Boston Massacre took place down the street from where Copley grew up.

Amazingly, it was the tea belonging to his father-in-law, Richard Clark, that was dumped overboard in the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Paul Revere, who had been painted by Copley five years before, was a participant in that notorious act of rebellion.

Copley left Boston for Europe in June of 1774 and never returned. He travelled first to England and then to France and Italy to study the masterworks of Western Art at the urging of another American expatriate painter, Benjamin West. Copley eventually settled in England. His wife and children joined him in May of 1775, one month after Paul Revere’s ride. Revere’s in-laws joined them in England soon after that.

John Singleton Copley eventually sold his house and land in what is now called Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, but he wished at times in his later years that he never had. He was, he realized, more liberal than his relatives. He maintained contacts in his old city and painted portraits of future presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams when they visited England. Copley’s daughter married an American and settled in Boston. His son, on the other hand, was British all the way, and later given the title “Lord Lyndhurst.”

Copley remembered Boston fondly and the city remembers him fondly, too. Copley Plaza, considered the city’s most beautiful public square and named in his honor, is situated near where his home once stood.

Sidetracked: The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, it should be noted, is not on Paul Revere’s route.

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