In the Fall 2012 Issue of ‘American Art’

Posted in journal articles by Editor on December 14, 2012

Ethan W. Lasser, “Selling Silver: The Business of Copley’s Paul Revere,” American Art 26 (Fall 2012): 26-43.

John Singleton Copley, Paul Revere, 1768. Oil on canvas, 35⅛ × 28½ in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Joseph W., William B., and Edward H. R. Revere.

John Singleton Copley, Paul Revere, 1768. Oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Joseph W., William B., and Edward H. R. Revere (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

. . . Few examples of colonial American painting have been studied as extensively as Copley’s Paul Revere. Scholars have argued that the portrait depicts Revere in his workshop as he pauses while engraving a silver teapot and have proposed a range of explanations to account for this subject matter. They have analyzed Copley’s sources, searched for (and ultimately uncovered little) information about the commission of the portrait, and speculated about the connection between the painting and Revere’s radical politics[note 2]. But interpreters have yet to consider seriously the connection between the portrait and the increasingly dire state of Revere’s financial affairs. Though Copley depicted the silversmith plying his trade, the bottom-line realities of this trade have been left out of the story of this iconic painting [p. 27]. . . .

My interpretation will draw on two different types of evidence. First is the portrait itself. Paul Revere is a far richer and more singular work than past scholars have acknowledged. While many writers have discussed the subject matter of the painting, few have seriously explored the portrait’s exceptional
composition. . . .

Since this is an image of a craftsman that emphasizes artisanal practice, questions about the processes of making, raising, and decorating silver teapots will also figure centrally in my account. In the period when Copley painted Paul Revere, elites grew increasingly interested in and familiar with artisanal materials and techniques [p. 28]. . . .

In proposing Paul Revere as such a strategic image, my argument locates the portrait within a broader field of eighteenth-century painting that functioned to promote the wares of particular retailers and artisans. This field includes genre paintings like Jean-Antoine Watteau’s iconic Shop Sign [p. 29] . . .

The full article is available here (J-Stor subscription required)

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