Paul Revere – Legend and Truth

The New-York Historical Society explores the life and accomplishments of Paul Revere (1735–1818), the Revolutionary War patriot immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1861 poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” On view until January 12, 2020, Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere separates fact from fiction, revealing Revere as a complex, multifaceted figure at the intersection of America’s social, economic, artistic, and political life in Revolutionary War-era Boston as it re-examines his life as an artisan, activist, and entrepreneur. The exhibition, featuring more than 140 objects, highlights aspects of Revere’s versatile career as an artisan, including engravings, such as his well-known depiction of the Boston Massacre; glimmering silver tea services made for prominent clients; everyday objects such as thimbles, tankards, and teapots; and important public commissions, such as a bronze courthouse bell.

Other Places to See this Exhibition

Organized by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, and curated by Nan Wolverton and Lauren Hewes, Beyond Midnight debuts at New-York Historical before traveling to the Worcester Art Museum and the Concord Museum in Massachusetts for a two-venue display (February 13 – June 7, 2020) and to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas (July 4 – October 11, 2020). At New-York Historical, Beyond Midnight is coordinated by Debra Schmidt Bach, New-York Historical’s curator of decorative arts.

A View of the Obelisk. By Paul Revere Jr., 1766. © American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts; Bequest of Mary L. Eliot, 1927.

Paul Revere – The Character beyond the Poem

“When many of us think of Paul Revere, we instantly think of Longfellow’s lines ‘One if by land, and two if by sea’, but there is much more to Revere’s story,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “This exhibition looks beyond the myth of Paul Revere to better understand the man as a revolutionary, an artisan, and an entrepreneur, who would go on to become a legend. We are proud to partner with the American Antiquarian Society to debut this exhibition in New York.”

A Protest Campaign in 1766

On arrival, visitors are welcomed by a nine-foot-tall re-creation of the grand obelisk made for a 1766 Boston Common celebration of the repeal of the Stamp Act, the first tax levied on the American colonies by England. Originally made of wood and oiled paper, and decorated with painted scenes, portraits, and text praising King George while also mocking British legislators, the obelisk was illuminated from inside and eventually consumed by flames at the Boston event. The only remaining visual evidence is Revere’s 1766 engraving of the design, also on view.

The Sons of Liberty

A Revolutionary activist, Paul Revere was a member of the Sons of Liberty, a secret group opposed to British colonial policy including taxation that kept track of British troop movements and war ships in the harbor. The exhibition displays Revere’s 1770 engraving of the landing of British forces at Boston’s Long Wharf. Four versions of Revere’s provocative engraving of the 1770 Boston Massacre are also reunited in the exhibition. The engravings capture the moment when British soldiers fired upon a crowd of unruly colonists in front of the Custom House. The print inflamed anti-British sentiment, and different versions of it were widely disseminated as Patriot propaganda. Revere also helped plan and execute the Boston Tea Party in 1773, hurling tea into Boston Harbor. When war erupted in 1775, he delivered messages from the Continental Army to New York, Philadelphia, and Connecticut.

What Paul Revere Earned his Money with

Paul Revere was a master craftsman specializing in metalwork, including copperplate engravings and fashionable and functional objects made from silver, gold, brass, bronze, and copper. An innovative businessman, Revere expanded his successful silver shop in the years after the war to produce goods that took advantage of new machinery. His fluted oval teapot, made from machine-rolled sheet silver, became an icon of American Federal silver design. Among the silver objects on view are two rare wine goblets possibly used as Kiddush cups made by Revere for Moses Michael Hays—his only known Jewish client—as well as grand tea services, teapots, tankards, teaspoons, and toy whistles created in Revere’s shop. Also featured is a 1796 cast-bronze courthouse bell made for the Norfolk County Courthouse in Dedham, Massachusetts. The exhibition also explores how Revere’s trade networks reached well beyond Boston. He frequently bought and sold raw and finished copper from New Yorker Harmon Hendricks and supplied copper for Robert Fulton’s famous steamship.

The son of a French Huguenot immigrant artisan, Revere belonged to an economic class called “mechanics,” ranked below merchants, lawyers, and clergymen. However, Revere was a savvy networker, and what he lacked in social status, he made up for by cultivating influential connections. Membership in the Sons of Liberty led to commissions from fellow Patriots, but he also welcomed Loyalist clients, setting aside politics for profit. On view are nine elements from a grand, 45-piece beverage service that Revere created in 1773 for prominent Loyalist Dr. William Paine—the largest commission of his career—just two months before the Boston Tea Party.

Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. By Grant Wood, 1931. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1950, 50.117.

The Fame of a Patriot

Paul Revere died in 1818, but his fame endured, initially for his metalwork and then for his patriotism. In the 1830s, Revere’s engravings were rediscovered as Americans explored their Revolutionary past, and his view of the Boston Massacre appeared in children’s history books. In 1860, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was inspired to write “Paul Revere’s Ride,” romanticizing (and somewhat embellishing) the story of Revere’s journey to Lexington. The poem first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in January 1861—an original copy of the magazine is on view in the exhibition. Artist Grant Wood’s painting Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931), also on display, depicts a dramatic scene of Revere riding past Boston’s Old North Church. This is also an embellishment: In reality, Revere was on foot until he crossed the Charles River to Cambridge and then rode a borrowed horse to Lexington. He was also one of three riders and was stopped briefly by British officers and then released. A map of the actual ride is on display. These works and others enshrined Paul Revere at the heart of the nation’s founding story. By the turn of the 20th century, the tale of Paul Revere and his midnight ride was firmly established in the nation’s psyche as truth, not fiction, and Revere’s contributions as a metalsmith and artisan were overshadowed.

Other Information you Might be Interested in

The accompanying publication Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere contains essays examining Revere as a patriot, a manufacturer, a precious metalsmith, a printer, and an engraver.

The exhibit will also be accompanied by a robust line-up of engaging programs and family activities take place throughout the exhibition’s run that delve into Revere and his contemporaries. Detailed information is available here.

You can learn more about the New-York Historical Society and the American Antiquarian Society on their respective websites.

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