Subversive Art & the American Revolution: Early Portraiture’s Declaration of Independence

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Portrait of Paul Revere

Wethersfield, Conn. (September 4, 2015) –Turns out a picture really is worth a thousand words, and art historian Rena Tobey maintains that a number of the most recognizable portraits created in 18th-century colonial America, speak volumes. Various works, Tobey says, could be considered downright subversive in the days leading to the Revolutionary War. On October 15, Tobey will visit the Webb-Deane-Stevens (WDS) Museum to demonstrate how paintings reflect the forming and shaping of the unique American identity. In fact, some portraits were intended to make strong political statements. To those who know how to read them, the works clearly state how the sitters’ viewed themselves and the direction in which they intended to lead the country. Tobey’s interactive presentation, “Clothes Make the Country: Fashion History and American Colonial Portraits ” will be held, free of charge, in the Webb Barn at 6:30 p.m. and will be preceded by a wine reception (by donation) at 6 p.m.

Tobey maintains that during the period of the 1720’s to the 1770’s, every item depicted in an American portrait said something about the person, the world s/he lived in, and the person’s aspirations. In the early 18th century, colonists used portraits to demonstrate their increasing wealth, and mimic English manners and symbols of success, especially the clothing.

Just before the Revolutionary War broke, out John Singleton Copley created two works which demonstrate the widening political gap between loyalists and rebels. And, Tobey says, they reveal how Copley’s attempt to “play both sides” ultimately led to him fleeing the country. Copley’s famous portrait of Nicholas Boylston, c. 1769, depicts the exotically turbaned and robed sitter at the height of fashion, a man clearly at one with the world, a middle-class merchant presenting himself as a prince.

Fabrics were traditionally used as a status symbol, in portraits and in daily life, in the years before the Revolutionary War, but that symbolism began to change. Copley’s famous “Portrait of Paul Revere,” 1768, depicts the silversmith as an artisan, an everyman, a citizen engaged in useful activity, with no markers of gentlemanly status. His wearing of homespun clothing, made in the colonies, not imported from England, turns the seemingly innocent portrait into a political document. Colonial America was forging an identity apart from its parent country… Tobey will explore more of the complexities of the painting during her presentation.

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Portrait of Nicholas Boylston

Those attending Tobey’s presentation will learn to see with contemporary eyes what people in the 1800s immediately understood, and discover new ways to consider the formation of a nation. A version of the presentation was featured at the 2011 International Textile and Apparel Association Annual Conference as “Polished versus Coarse: Men’s Fashions in Colonial Portraits, Forging an American Identity.” The program now features women and children, also, indicating the critical role each played in developing the new country and its vision of itself.

Tobey earned a doctoral degree in human and organizational studies before turning her research attention to American art history. Through five years of academic retooling, she focused on resuscitating the careers of barely-remembered American women artists working before 1945. Now she is publishing a seven-essay series in Art Times Journal called “Finding Her Way,” inspired by these accomplished artists. Tobey is also a playwright, and a recent work, “Muses,” has emerged from her research. She teaches art history at Eastern Connecticut State University and Southern Connecticut State University. Just for fun, she is creating Artventures™– a party game on the adventures of art and art history—slated for release this fall.

About the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum

Located in the heart of Connecticut’s largest historic district, the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum provides the quintessential New England experience – from the American Revolution to the early 20th century. Tours include the 1752 Joseph Webb House, where General George Washington met with French General Rochambeau and planned the military campaign leading to the end of the Revolutionary War, the 1770 Silas Deane House, built for America’s first diplomat to France, and the 1788 Isaac Stevens House, which depicts Connecticut life in the 18th and 19th centuries. For more information visit: or call (860) 529-0612. Like us on Facebook:



Charles Lyle, Executive Director
(860) 529-0612, ext., 14, [email protected]

Julie Winkel, Media Specialist
203-815-0800, [email protected]