I’ve been thinking about commemoration—past, present, and future–a lot lately, yet another consequence of the constant interplay between what I do and where I live. I’m pretty sure my understanding of English and western European history between 1400 and 1700 is grounded in historical sources, but I’m increasingly aware that my “knowledge” of American history is much more a product of projection than evidence. And as Massachusetts heads into a prolonged period of commemoration for the 400th anniversaries of Plymouth and its successor settlements (including Salem, which will have to “remember” without its hijacked historical sources), I’ve been reading up on the scholarly literature, and just finished We are What We Remember: The American Past through Commemoration, a volume of essays edited by Jeffrey Lee Meriwether and Laura Mattoon D’Amore. Two essays in particular, D’Amore’s “Patriarchal Boots: Women, Redcoats and the Construction of Revolutionary Memory”, and Anne Reilly’s “The Pilgrimization of Plymouth: Creating a Landscape of Memory in Plymouth, Massachusetts during the Pilgrim Tercentenary of 1920-21”, were quite resonant for me, and almost as soon as I was done with them we were off to see commemoration in practice rather than theory: at the annual reenactment of the Boston Massacre by the Bostonian Society at the Old State House. It was interesting to see the “Colonials” mingle with the large crowd assembled: when well-worn revolutionary phrases were shouted out, I heard several individuals wearing capes, cocked hats, and mob caps replying not yet…..that’s from 1774, or 1775.
This is a really great event but there are too many glaring lights! Can’t we turn off Boston for a half-hour or so? I suppose not, but we should remember that this epic event was clothed in darkness. Even Revere’s iconic print, which is so important a foundation for our collective memory, casts it in light: it’s not until a century later that we see darker depictions. I wanted to see more after the reenactment, so I started looking around, and came up with several references to a painting by Walter Gilman Page (1862-1934), a prominent Boston artist whose commemorative painting of the Massacre was exhibited in 1899-1900. It received strong reviews, but I can’t find the actual painting anywhere–only illustrations and lantern slides. As you can see, it is dark. Where is it?
Page was a wonderful portrait artist (best known for his extremely humanist portrait of a dying Grandmother in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and an active member of the Nantucket Art Colony, but he seems to have been particularly passionate about historical paintings: he depicted several other revolutionary events (Paul Revere’s ride, of course) and also reproduced portraits of founding fathers. The 1899 article in the Art Interchange (the source of the illustration above) notes that Mr. Page’s keen interest in American history of the Revolutionary period is indicated by his membership in several historical societies—charter member of the Society of Colonial Wars for Massachusetts, charter member and vice-president of the Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the Revolution, and member of the Bunker Hill Monument Association. He is also chairman of the Tablet Committee of the Sons of the Revolution, whose business it is to mark with properly inscribed tablets the scenes of historical events connected with the War of the Revolution. He has been prominently connected with the movement for art and art decoration in the public schools, and is chairman of the Committee of Massachusetts’ Artists for the Paris Exposition of 1900. Artistry and memory: a winning combination, from time immemorial.
Walter Gilman Page’s portraits of Thomas Hutchinson (1900, copy of the 1741 portrait by Edward Truman), Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and John Hancock (1906, after John Singleton Copley, Skinner Auctions).