Oil on canvas
35 x 28 1/2 in. (88.9 x 72.3 cm)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
“The year 1768 was an important one for two young Bostonians: John Singleton Copley, who painted this picture, and Paul Revere, who sat for it. They were both in their early thirties, and they could not have been more different. This was a time of extreme political tension, when Boston was divided into Whigs, who wanted freedom, and Tories, who were content to stay British. Paul Revere was deeply political – and 100 percent Whig. Copley, on the other hand, was completely uninterested in politics; he wanted only to be neutral, which was not possible. He was about to marry into one of the leading Tory families, the Clarkes (owners of the notorious tea concession). Copley was performing a balancing act, but this was the year when he wrote that he felt he must leave America and go to live in England. There he could be an artist and a gentleman – while silversmith Paul Revere was happy to be a craftsman.
“It was costly to have one’s portrait painted, and very unusual to be painted without a gentleman’s coat. Revere’s descendants misunderstood this picture. They thought it made him look like a workman, and they hid it in the attic, but Revere is wearing an elaborate vest with gold buttons. The great expanse of bare sleeve – a fullness of flowing linen – makes a political statement. There was supposed to be no linen in America unless it was imported. The ladies of Boston objected to this, and in this very year they produced a hundred ells (about 125 yards) of linen. Revere is honoring this act of defiance, sporting a symbol of his country’s freedom. The problem is the teapot, because tea was a burning issue. Only the Tories drank tea; the Whigs drank “Boston Tea,” which was punch. Why does Revere hold a teapot? Is Copley deliberately trying to balance the Whiggish sleeve? Or was it Revere’s own choice – to show off his skills as a silversmith? I see this picture as almost a confrontation between the two young men. Looking at Revere’s solid, brooding face, I am not surprised that he won. Copley signed the portrait, but in letters so minuscule that hardly anyone could read them.”