Classical Era: The American Revolution

The American Revolution shook the world in the Classical Era. How was it that thirteen small colonies could shake free of a world power? Truly, this was a momentous point in world history. Around this time, a number of Americans were showing their skill in the musical and visual arts. Visual arts provided a powerful record of the events of this period, especially the Revolutionary War. Certain pieces of music composed in this time frame became anthems for the cause of liberty. In this blog, we will look back at two significant paintings and one notable song that skilled men produced relating to the American Revolution.

 

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The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, 17 June, 1775; painted by John Trumbull sometime between 1815 and 1831 © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Battle of Bunker’s Hill was one of the major early clashes between the Colonial and Royal forces. Although the colonists lost, they dealt the British troops a heavy blow. The British side with its trained soldiers lost 1054 troops, but the losses of the patchwork Colonial army were smaller—441. The fact that this victory was hard-won for the British raised the morale of the American people (“Battle of Breed’s Hill”). American artist John Trumbull watched this battle from afar, and with his first-hand experience and artistic skill, he was able to later produce a vivid snapshot of one of this pivotal moment in the battle (Tamarkin 137). I did not find where Trumbull painted this, but it was likely somewhere in America. Trumbull was American and the first rendition was commissioned by the Warren family. Although he is not widely famous today, Warren was a hero in the war. He was a leading doctor who became Major General only three days before his death at Bunker’s Hill. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts website says that “He was so idolized that in the decade following his death there were more towns and streets named after him than after George Washington” (“The Death of General Warren”).

This painting is so vivid. In this painting, General Warren is clearly portrayed as a key figure. The desperation of the situation is clearly portrayed. Warren’s sword lies broken beside him. A barefoot man holds Warren and tries to deflect a bayonet stab. Another colonial soldier prepares to fire upon the killer, and a third man tries to club him. A young figure in the bottom corner glances at the situation with a startled expression. In the midst of the frenzy, it seems that a British soldier is showing compassion by pulling his comrade’s bayonet away from General Warren. Meanwhile, the British seem to be prevailing. The British flag is leaning forward and troops around it are charging forward. The indistinct colonial flags are leaning backwards as the American troops try to stand their ground. Trumbull powerfully depicted the emotion in this scene. It reflects a riveting moment in the battle.

 

George Washington at Princeton by Charles Willson Peale (1779)
George Washington at Princeton by Charles Willson Peale (1779)

A much more tranquil scene, George Washington at Princeton portrays the best-remembered figure of the Revolutionary War, Commander-in-Chief Washington himself. Charles Willson Peale was familiar with George Washington. No other artist produced as many different portraits of Washington as Peale did (“George Washington at Princeton”). Commissioned by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, Peale visited New Jersey to lay the groundwork for this painting (“George Washington”). This painting depicts a much more optimistic moment in the Revolutionary War than Trumbull’s painting does. The British flag lies at Washington’s feet, representing his great victory at the Battles of Princeton and Trenton. In the background, we see colonists guarding British prisoners-of-war and the Betsy Ross flag flying high. He shows Washington’s steady, bold spirit. Peale’s artistic talent is evident in the rendering of this American victory—a pivotal moment in the war.

William Billings was a prominent American composer during the Revolutionary War. His composition “Chester” was a patriotic theme song during the Revolution (Rose). After reading the lyrics and hearing the upbeat tune, it is easy to see how this song inspired confidence in the colonists. Consider the first verse, for example:

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.

Billings’ lyrics reflect the colonists’ “David and Goliath” perspective on the war. Even though they were just a small group of colonies facing an angry world power, they believed God supported their fight for liberty. They took confidence in this, and this song reflects that.

The song was likely written in Massachusetts. Massachusetts was where Billings was born, where he was married, and where he died (Hall). The first version of the song (1770) was published in the New England Psalm Singer. During that time-frame, it enjoyed a level of popularity in America’s music comparable to that of “Yankee Doodle” (“Chester”).

America was born in the Classical Era. Even though it was young and small, it was already showing artistic potential. Many excellent works besides those presented here were produced in America.

 

Works Cited

“Battle of Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill.” Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Worcester Polytechnic Institute Department of Military Science, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. <http://www.wpi.edu/academics/military/bhill.html>.

“Chester.” What So Proudly We Hail. What So Proudly We Hail. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. <http://www.whatsoproudlywehail.org/curriculum/the-american-calendar/chester>.

“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, 17 June, 1775.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. <http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/the-death-of-general-warren-at-the-battle-of-bunkers-hill-17-june-1775-34260>.

“George Washington.” The Metroplitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. <http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/11707>.

“George Washington at Princeton.” Senate Art. United States Senate, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. <http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/art/artifact/Painting_31_00002.htm>.

Hall, Roger. “William Billings – Father of American Choral Music.” AmericanMusicPreservation.com. Pinetree Multi-media Productions. Web. 28 Feb. 2016. <http://www.americanmusicpreservation.com/billings.htm>.

Rose, Leigh Ann. “William Billings.” Leigh Ann Rose. University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. <http://userpages.umbc.edu/~lrose2/william billings.html>.

Tamarkin, Elisa. Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2008. Google Books. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. <https://books.google.com/books?id=Di6sxR9yQtwC>.

 

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3 thoughts on “Classical Era: The American Revolution

  1. Great minds think alike! I also used one Trumbull’s works on my blog. You may like some of his other works. I found some interesting info on him here. I enjoyed reading about The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill. You wrote “The desperation of the situation is clearly portrayed. Warren’s sword lies broken beside him.” I agree that the sword is an important element. I think it signifies that he fought to the end. His resolve did not break only his physical body. I totally agree with you that “Trumbull powerfully depicted the emotion in this scene”.

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  2. I really enjoyed reading your blog! I learned a lot I did not know about General Warren. That is so sad that he earned such a huge accomplishment three days prior to losing his life, but his legacy will live on through the painting John Trumbull created and history. I love the feeling of pride that comes when a nation stands together.

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  3. This is a great blog. Of course, this is the era where American art appears and the art maintains the style of typical classical era artwork. I did notice that both paintings presented in your blog had very similar palette colors for the background, yet both were painted by two different artists. It really just shows how prevalent that particular art style was at the time. One thing I noticed about the two paintings was the lack of facial expressions in the subjects. This may have been because it was easier to paint at the time, or it had a deeper symbolic meaning. For more information on American Revolution art: http://www.americanrevolution.org/artmain.php.

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