Between Longfellow’s poem and the American history classes we experienced in elementary school, most of us know about Paul Revere and his actions at the start of the American Revolution. Like “Paul Revere’s Ride” the illustrations created to accompany Longfellow’s 1860 poem have helped to shape our perceptions of the story.
The ride to warn the colonists of Middlesex County, Massachusetts that the British were about to attack began on April 18, 1775. The subsequent battles of the conflict occurred later that same day in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts.
Longfellow’s poem was begun after his visit to the Old North Church in the north end of Boston on April 5, 1860 and was first published in the Boston Evening Transcript in December 1860 and then in the January 1861 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Its initial publication came just as the state of South Carolina ceded from the United States. Meant as a call to action for the Northern states, Longfellow told the story of that earlier historic night’s work in the voice of the landlord of the Wayside Inn (in Sudbury, Massachusetts) as a way to remind the country of our shared history. By telling the story from the point of view of the past and the present, Longfellow made it timeless.
Longfellow also skewed the story to make it more dramatic and to give it a tighter focus. In fact, Revere and his fellow patriot William Dawes rode from Boston to Lexington to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams that British soldiers were coming to arrest them and to seize the weapons stored in Concord. In Lexington Revere and Dawes were joined by Samuel Prescott and the three rode on together. British troops stopped the three men on the road near Concord. Prescott and Dawes escaped to ride on to Concord and warn the militia there.
Because Longfellow’s poem brought attention to the story, by the 1870s with the country’s growing interest in its historical past around the time of the Centennial, the poem’s tale began to anchor our history. At the same time, the burgeoning American market for magazines and books fostered the illustration of the narrative’s fiction in various publications.
Most often represented is the image of Paul Revere on horseback as he rides to warn the countryside of the impending arrival of the British soldiers. Wenninger’s 1879 illustration (seen above) of the event for a publication of Longfellow’s poems shows the horse running through the countryside with Revere on its back. Revere is turned backward in the saddle looking for the lights in the church tower in the far left background.* Because there are two lights shinning from the tower windows, according to the poem, Revere knew that the British are making their way over the water and not over land. Wenninger obviously was not aware of Eadweard Muybridge’s 1877 photographic studies of animal locomotion that prove that a running horse does not have all four of its feet off the ground at the same time.
Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904); The Horse in Motion, 1878; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Surprisingly the 20th century illustrator Herbert Paus used a similar active pose to Wenninger’s when he created his April 16, 1925 cover illustration for Life magazine. That issue focused on the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Revolution. Notice how Paus used contrasting hot and cool colors to create an extremely dynamic cover illustration. While the shadows and shadings that give dimensionality to Revere are done in the tones of night, the fuscia and red depiction of the night sky and the skyline of 18th century Boston convey urgency and danger.
Herbert Paus (1880-1946); Revolutionary Number, “Obey that Impulse!!” 1925; Cover illustration for Life (April 16, 1925)
Robert Lawson (1892-1957); He Fell forward on My Neck, 1953; Illustration for Mr. Revere and Iby Robert Lawson (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1953); Collection of Rare Book Department of the Free Library ofPhiladelphia
But my all time favorite version of the story and accompanying illustrations are the work of Robert Lawson for his story, Mr. Revere and I: Being an Account of Certain Episodes in the Career of Paul Revere, Esq. As Recently Revealed By His Horse, Scheherazade, Late Pride of His Royal Majesty’s 14th Regiment of Foot, published in 1953. Lawson told his story from the point of view of the horse (who answers to the name, “Sherry”) with Paul Revere being the hapless fellow and inexperienced rider. So Lawson’s story about Revere is straight from the horse’s mouth.
* This image was later used as the company logo for Spurr’s Coffee Company of Boston. See, Virginia O’Hara’s excellent exhibit catalog, Revere’s Ride and Longfellow’s Legend (Chadds Ford, PA: Brandywine River Conservancy, 2004): 16.
April 5, 2012
By Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, Norman Rockwell Museum