Welcome to WAM Updates

WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

We hope you like reading the Updates! If you are interested in learning about something specific, or have a suggestion for a WAM Update, please update us at wamupdates@worcesterart.org

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Turn to art for perspective

Winslow Homer, The Gale, 1883-1893, oil on canvas, 1916.48

Dear Members and Friends of WAM,

Art through the ages often reflects uncertain times--such as the present--either by highlighting them or by suggesting different narratives and points of view. When you visit museums like the Worcester Art Museum, with art collections from a wide timeline and range of cultures, you will find scenes of war, suffering, and human struggle in all walks of life. Our arms and armor collection--one of the world's strongest--is a testimony to the human desire to establish order in an unpredictable world. Our Colonial portraits show the longing for stability in an era of extreme hardship. The Buddha heads in our Asian galleries project serenity, while history suggests a different reality.

During unsettling times, art also helps us cope. Scenes of violence and loss can put our own troubles into reassuring perspective, while images of beauty can give us a sense of refuge and calm. The Worcester Art Museum's collections encompass the breadth and universality of our shared human experience, which nurture our hope for the future.

Although we are closed (like every other museum in the country), WAM is still your museum, and it is still here for you. You may be unable to walk through the galleries right now, but you can still experience the transformative power of art through our website and social media platforms. If you are not already following us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, I invite you to join us there where we are actively sharing images, insights, and opportunities for you to enjoy the WAM collection in a whole new way.

We appreciate our city's leadership and our community's support during this challenging time. Many people have reached out to ask how they can help while the Museum is closed. Please consider making a gift to the WAM Fund. Your support will help us continue to fulfill our mission of "connecting people, communities, and cultures via the experience of art" while we are closed.

All of us at the Worcester Art Museum thank you for your ongoing support and wish you and your families well. Together, we will overcome our problems--just as many previous generations have so ably done.


Matthias Waschek
Jean and Myles McDonough Director

 P.S. Donate to the WAM Fund online by clicking here.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Revere and the Boston Massacre

On March 5, 1770, a group of British soldiers stationed in Boston fired on a crowd of colonial protestors, killing five and wounding six more. This act – the latest in a series of escalating conflicts between revolutionary-minded Bostonians and supporters of the Crown – became known as the Boston Massacre.

The Bloody Massacre, Paul Revere

Today, every American History textbook discusses the Massacre, often alongside an image of Paul Revere’s famous print, describing it as one of the major inciting incidents of the Revolutionary War. But the real story is much more complex, and closely involves that very print.

Through the late 1760s, colonial support for the Revolution was growing, but by no means unanimous. Separatist organizations, especially the Sons of Liberty, worked not only to resist policies of the British Crown but also to excite colonists (who were often more concerned with getting on with day-to-day life) into active rebellion. In Boston, this tended to result in groups of laborers harassing loyalist shop owners, vandalizing stores that sold British goods during the boycotts; this, in turn, led to more troops being quartered in the city to “keep the peace.”

By early 1770, there were approximately 2,000 British troops in a city of 16,000 colonists. Tensions rose higher, and increasingly fights broke out between the revolutionary colonists and groups of soldiers.

On the night of the Massacre, a crowd of such protestors had been threatening a lone soldier guarding the Custom House on King Street. The situation quickly escalated: the soldier, Hugh White, called for reinforcements and struck at colonists who came too close to him; the crowd responded by pelting him with ice and snow; bells rang throughout the city, summoning more colonists who expected to find a fire, but instead encountered a near-riot. By the time Captain Thomas Preston arrived with several more soldiers, the crowd had grown to perhaps two or three hundred.

Accounts are confused as to what came next. The soldiers quickly became mixed up in the crowd; some witnesses said the rioters threatened to kill the soldiers, attacking with stones or even clubs, or tried to pull them into alleys; at some point, the soldiers started firing, but it is unclear who (if anyone) ordered them to do so. When everything settled, three colonists were dead and eight more wounded; two of whom would later die of their wounds.

Revolutionary leaders in Boston hoped to use the tragedy to rally people to their cause, both in the colonies and in London, but needed a sympathetic narrative. Days after the Massacre, supporters of both sides began gathering eyewitness testimony of the riot as well as accounts of interactions between soldiers and colonists in the days before. Pamphlets were published relating these accounts, including A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre, which framed the growing tension as a series of unprovoked attacks on peaceful civilians. Meanwhile, loyalist publishers pushed forth the story that the protestors were uncontrollably violent troublemakers.

It was in this climate that Henry Pelham, a young engraver from Boston and half-brother of renowned portraitist John Singleton Copley, created a print he titled The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or the Bloody Massacre. The scene depicted a crowd of helpless colonists (dressed as gentlemen) being ruthlessly gunned down by harsh-faced soldiers in a neat line.

The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, Henry Pelham
Pelham showed an unfinished version of his print to Paul Revere, an older and better established craftsman with a printing press of his own. Revere immediately recognized the power of the scene and quickly produced his own near-identical version.

Revere’s act would not have been considered “theft” or plagiarism as it would be today (printers frequently copied images in those days, and did not always credit the original artist) but Pelham later admitted he felt taken advantage of. Revere, thanks to his connections with local shop owners and with Boston printers Benjamin Edes and John Gill (publishers of the Boston Gazette and Country Journal), had his prints widely distributed throughout Boston within three weeks of the Massacre, with 200 copies available in local shops for between 8 pence and 1 shilling. Some prints were colored by artist Christian Remick, who used simple but bold colors, especially the red of the soldiers’ uniforms and the victims’ blood, to make the image more striking. Pelham, meanwhile, took another week to get his prints available, by which time the market was already flooded with Revere’s.

The image itself was phenomenally successful. In addition to regular prints, which were purchased and displayed by sympathetic Bostonians, Edes and Gill produced a broadside using Revere’s print and five columns of text from their newspaper. These were posted in public places throughout the city, where anyone could read an account of the events.

During and after the trial of the British soldiers, variations of the image appeared by other artists. For example, a smaller, simplified relief cut, also made by Revere, appeared on a broadside published in 1772, decrying the lax sentencing of the guilty parties and the lack of justice in this case and in the death of Christopher Seider, who was killed in a conflict two weeks before the Massacre (this broadside on view at Concord Museum).

Broadsheet published by Isaiah Thomas, detail.
Image by Paul Revere
The use of propaganda, pamphlets and images continued throughout the Revolutionary War, though images of the Massacre were replaced by more recent events.

In 1832, William Stratton of Boston created a new copperplate version of the print, reviving the Massacre in the public consciousness (a print of this is on view at the Concord Museum). Soon, prints were again available by multiple artists, recreating the scene for political publications, historical textbooks, and collectors. Though there was some variation between images (some were more chaotic, some attempted to incorporate further historical details, and those intended for abolitionist publications prominently featured Crispus Attucks*), the basic structure and symbolism of Revere and Pelham’s original prints remain recognizable. Sixty years after the Massacre, these images created for propaganda were now viewed as historical fact, and became the basis for our modern understanding of the events of March 5, 1770.

So, why do we continue to remember this print as Revere’s and not Pelham’s? Once again, Revere had on his side a combination of name recognition, good connections, and plain luck – we know that his 200 prints were widely distributed, more so than Pelham’s, and perhaps more likely to be kept, thanks to their connection to a well-known Founding Father. Two hundred and fifty years later, over 70 copies of Revere’s print survive – while only two remain of Pelham’s.

*Widely believed to be the first victim of the Massacre to die, Crispus Attucks was a mixed-race dockworker and former slave living in Boston; in the mid-19th century, he became a prominent symbol of the Abolitionist movement as the first martyr of the Revolution.

For the first time in Massachusetts, five versions of the Massacre print -- including Revere's and Pelham's -- can be seen together as part of the Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere exhibition, organized by American Antiquarian Society. Visit the exhibition at WAM to see them all!

Sarah Leveille
Digital Media Specialist
March 5, 2020

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