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John Singleton Copley (American, 1738–1815), Paul Revere, 1768. Oil on canvas, 35 1/8 x 28 1/2 inches. Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; gift of Joseph W. Revere, William B. Revere, and Edward H.R. Revere. MFA: 30.781.

Generations of scholars had long surmised that John Singleton Copley’s portrait of silversmith and patriot Paul Revere, in the musuem of Fine Arts, Boston, was painted circa 1770. However, in 1995, museum conservators cleaned the canvas revealing a minute inscription of “1768” alongside the artist’s initials. This revelation gives the painting entirely new significance in light of the politically and emotionally charged time of its creation.

1768 marked a watershed year in Boston politics between Whigs, who included radicals for liberty, and Tories, the loyalists to the Crown. A majority of the House of Massachusetts Bay members voted against the demands of the Royal Governor by refusing to rescind a document known as the “Circular Letter” decrying unfair taxation. Protests, boycotts, and debates ensued; the conflict escalated with the arrival of British troops. Within weeks of the House’s vote, Revere created the Sons of Liberty Bowl, which is engraved around its rim with the names of those who commissioned it.

The bowl was used at covert meetings of the Sons of Liberty, whose members included Revere and other Whigs, for toasting with rum punch. Since it was engraved with patriotic slogans along with the names of its joint owners, it was considered a treasonous object and therefore was kept well hidden between meetings. One side is engraved with flags, a liberty cap, and a page of torn general warrants together with the words Magna/Charta and Bill of Rights. Furthermore, a cartouche makes reference to the arrest of Londoner John Wilkes, a champion of liberty. The inscription “Number 45” refers to the name of his published pamphlet for which he was imprisoned—a violation of his civil rights. The front of the bowl bears a lengthy inscription that records and celebrates the memory of those House of Massachusetts Bay members who, on June 30, 1768, voted not to rescind the Circular Letter.

Paul Revere (American, 1735–1818), Sons of Liberty Bowl, 1768. Silver, H. 5 1/2 in., uneven. Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; gift by subscription and Francis Bartlett Fund. MFA: 49.45.

Copley and Revere sat face to face for the portrait, as friends and artistic associates, even though they inhabited very different professional spheres. Revere was a tradesman/ craftsman, while Copley aspired to raise himself to the classification of gentleman. Just a few years after the painting was executed, the lives of the two artists diverged and they never saw each other again. Revere chose the danger of actively opposing British tyranny, for which he was added to the London Enemies list, and became a celebrated Boston patriot. On the other hand, Copley married into a Tory family with strong Loyalist connections and sailed away to England.

In this destabilized political environment, Copley painted his friend in a contemplative pose balanced between symbols of both the Tories’ taste for tea and the Whigs’ involvement with home industry and nonimportation. These references to trade and politics—the silver teapot and Revere’s shirtsleeve of fine American-spun linen—take on significant meaning in relation to the events of 1768.

Read more on the subject in Jonathan Fairbanks’s essay included in the recently published New England Silver & Silversmithing 1620–1815, edited by Jeannine Falino and Gerald W.R. Ward (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, University Press of Virginia, 2001). The volume was compiled from a symposium cosponsored by the Colonial Society and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Falino and Ward, both MFA curators, wrote two of the ten articles on new research and discovery including “The Silver Chocolate Pots of Boston.” To order, call the MFA bookstore at 800.225.5592.

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