Paul Revere

Portrait of Paul Revere

Paul Revere, a Boston silversmith, painted by Copley in 1768. 

Here, Revere wears a linen shirt and velvet vest. His linen shirt is loose and open, bunching in folds around his right elbow. It is also exceedingly plain, lacking the smallest hint of decoration, such as ruffles. Copley shows Revere to be in the middle of a busy workday, holding aloft a blank piece of silverware and deciding what design to engrave on it. 

 

Paul Revere (Detail)

A detail of Revere's collar and left sleeve. 

Curator at Harvard Art Museums, Ethan Lasser, suggests that the drapery in Revere’s shirt, like the shirt itself, serves not merely an ornamental, but a utilitarian purpose as well. The openness of his collar may allude to his having worked on an earlier stage in the silver-smithing process, in which the heat would have forced him to labor in a loose, open garment. Revere’s left sleeve, meanwhile, and its ripples cascading down his arm towards his hand, may have been painted to evoke the smelting process, by which pieces of silver were melted down to create the teapot, providing a reminder of the work that went into the artistry he holds. Whether these particular images were purposefully rendered, the work shirt is certainly a clear indicator to viewers of a man in “occupational dress” – the sort of shirt one would wear when undertaking messy, hot, and sweat-inducing labor. His linen shirt would send the message that he is someone who does all his engravings and silver-smithing himself, and that every piece bought from him had been deftly created by his own skillful hands, and therefore of reputable quality. 

Linen Shirt

An 18th century linen shirt. 

An example of a simple, hand-sewn linen undershirt. Just like Revere's, it is loose and flowing, simple, inexpensive, and practical. Linen was considered a "washable and durable" fabric able to stand up to wear and tear, making it an ideal textile for a work shirt.

Portrait of Nathaniel Hurd

Nathaniel Hurd, 1766. 

 

 

The simplicity and utilitarian nature of Revere’s clothing becomes more apparent when compared to Copley’s earlier portrait of another silversmith, Nathaniel Hurd. He wears a banyan, at ease in a garment meant for relaxation and indoor use; Revere, on the other hand, in his plain linen shirt, is hard at work in his shop. 

At a Meeting of the Freeholders and other Inhabitants of the Town of Boston, legally assembled at Faneuil-Hall, on Wednesday the 28th of October, 1767.

A newspaper account of a meeting of Bostonians on October 28th, 1767, led by James Otis, who had come to discuss which imported goods to boycott after the passage of the Townsend Acts earlier that year. Included in the list were many clothes items. 

 

Linen took on a political significance in the time this portrait was painted. Non-importation agreements, such as this one, sprouted up in the port towns of the colonies. Colonists sympathetic to the revolutionary cause eschewed buying luxurious imported fabrics from England, such as silk or damask. As the colonies did not have the capability to make silk or other such fabrics due to Parliamentary laws prohibiting manufacture of silk or wool, the only fabrics they could muster up in large quantities was homespun linen and cotton, which women made in abundance.

Newspaper Articles on Spinning Matches

Two newspaper articles, from 1768 and 1769, describe a trend of holding spinning matches in Massachusetts towns, in which groups of young women gather, spinning wheels in tow, and create wearable linen and cloth. 

Under the influence of such nonimportation agreements, the making of linen became a political act rather than a merely domestic one, and an increasingly public one as well – women began to hold outdoor spinning bees, which many contemporary local newspapers reported on. Which fabric one wore therefore became not only a signifier of wealth but one that indicated one’s political sympathies. Notable is the artistic way in which the spinners are described - they are "laudably employed in playing on a musical Instrument, called a Spinning Wheel, the Melody of whose Music, and the Beauty of the Project, transending for Delight, all the Entertainments of..Life." The other article refers to them as "Mistresses of their Art." Linen and cotton, therefore, come to symbolize something not unlike Revere's silverware - emblems of something beautiful, indendently made, and skillfully artistic. The growing revolutionary fervor give increased value to colonial American goods as pieces of self-sufficient, locally-made manufacture - things created by colonial American hands for use in colonial American homes.

The Revere portrayed here is not yet the legendary American picture of patriotism he would become after his midnight ride; it is not even clear whether his linen is homespun or imported from Ireland. But he is certainly not of the class of wealthy Loyalists who benefited so from British trade; he is instead portrayed to prospective clients as a man unafraid of laboring to create well-made, handcrafted pieces of silverware with his hands. 

Paul Revere