This week will mark the last session of two courses I’ve been teaching on the American Revolution for the past several months. I have to admit, I’m sad to see it conclude. I’ve taught a number of courses in several places on various subjects. This was my first time teaching specifically on the Revolution and I enjoyed it enormously.
The thing that strikes me most about the Revolution is the profound fragility of it. There really is no earthly reason why we should have won that war. Outnumbered and facing one of the greatest professional armies on earth, the Continentals were, compared to their British foes, a malnourished, half-naked, poorly trained rabble.
But we won.
Washington’s role in this, in my opinion, cannot be over-emphasized. The man knew how to choose his battles…and for the most part, he chose battles that he knew he could win and that he knew would have maximum effect on American morale and foreign relations. As for the battles he could not win, he had an impressive ability to orchestrate retreats without exposing his army to complete annihilation or disintegration…both of which were very real possibilities in a number of instances.
On the other side, the Revolution was miraculously aided by some staggeringly poor generalship on the part of the Britons. General Howe’s years of inaction guaranteed the success of the Revolution every bit as much as Washington’s action.
Getting back to the stark contrast between the two armies, there is one painter who, as far as I’m concerned, has captured this better than any historian could with words.
Howard Pyle is probably my favorite artist (close competitors would be Andrew Wyeth and Winslow Homer). Born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1853, by the 1890s, he was an accomplished illustrator with an acute interest in historical subjects. He painted and sketched beautiful illustrations for many magazines, particularly Harpers Weekly, and also for countless novels…mostly tales of adventure. Pirates. He painted a lot of pirates. I’m not so much interested in the pirate illustrations, although there is one called “Marooned” which I think is quite remarkable.
Pyle taught illustration at Drexel University in Philadelphia and later organized his own school which would come to be known as the Brandywine School of artists, named for Pennsylvania’s Brandywine River where Pyle summered. Among the famous American artists Pyle influenced were Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth and, by extension, Andrew Wyeth (who probably comes in third on my list of favorites).
At the top of this post is “The Battle of Bunker Hill,” painted in 1897 by Pyle and published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1898. Depicting the 52nd Regiment of Foot advancing up Breed’s Hill, the original painting was in the collection of the Delaware Art Museum until it went missing in 2001 and is presumed stolen. Sad. It’s probably one of the greatest battle depictions ever painted.
No other painting that I know of quite captures the “shock and awe,” if you’ll pardon the expression, of the British Army. During the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, the besieged British troops in Boston tried to break their way out by launching a frontal assault on the high ground of Charlestown across Boston harbor which had just, the previous night, been fortified by the provincials. Low on ammunition, disorganized and seriously wanting in terms of battle experience, the provincials nonetheless held a strong position and managed to repel successive assaults by the British Regulars before finally being forced to retreat.
Imagine seeing the British come on like that! The discipline, orderliness and comparative enormity of the British Army are all perfectly captured in this painting. The British counted on these psychological advantages to help them win the war.
By contrast, consider another painting by Pyle, “The Nation Makers” depicting the American infantry at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777.
After about two years of not doing very much besides capturing New York, British General William Howe finally launched, in the summer of 1777, an assault on the American capital of Philadelphia. General Washington positioned his army halfway between Philadelphia and Howe’s landing place, taking up a position along the Brandywine River at a place called Chadd’s Ford. The Americans lost and Philadelphia was taken. But Washington’s determined defense of the city was a psychological victory which helped convince the French to join the war.
121 years later, Howard Pyle began teaching a select group of art students at Chadd’s Ford where the battle had taken place. During his years spent there, Pyle must have repeatedly pictured the American army resisting the British advance at Brandywine. In 1906, he put the image on canvas. The result is, I think, an exceptional representation of the ragged but determined American army.
I don’t know if Pyle ever thought of the two works as companions. But together, I think they make a brilliant pairing, helping to bring to life the almost unbelievable notion that those perfect British ranks were beaten by those half-starved patriots.
April 1st, 2011 at 6:01 am
Striking works or art. I was not faniliar with the artist. I am now and will seek him out. Thanks for this.
April 12th, 2011 at 10:33 pm
[…] photography, artists where the ones sent out to the battlefields. They drew pictures of the battle scenes before them and these pictures would be included in the news articles of the day. Howard Pyle was […]
December 30th, 2012 at 2:21 pm
Excellent article on an excellent illustrator. While Pyle probably is best remembered for his pirates, I always loved his Arthurian and medieval illustrations and while I don’t think he did many, his Civil War paintings are excellent, especially his painting of the engagement at Shy’s Hill during the Battle of Nashville, a favorite.
December 30th, 2012 at 3:56 pm
Agreed! The Battle of Nashville is an amazing work. I notice more every time I look at it.
August 2nd, 2013 at 11:00 am
[…] ”The Nation Makers” by Howard Pyle, 1906 Image via source […]
July 15th, 2015 at 2:51 am
“The Nation Makers” is the cover artwork on the book “The Glorious Cause” the second in a two part series by Jeff Shaara on the Revolutionary War.
September 28th, 2015 at 1:35 pm
[…] https://historicaldigression.com/2011/03/22/howard-pyle-and-painting-the-revolution/ – Howard Pyle’s collection of painting the Revolution […]
February 25th, 2016 at 1:50 pm
I came across “The Nation Makers” by accident. I found it captivating. I stumbled across this review while trying to investigate about the painting and artist. Thank you so much for all the great information!
July 6th, 2017 at 10:19 pm
There’s a reason that Cornwallis’s aide, when surrendering at Yorktown on his superior’s behalf, tried to present his sword to Lafayette instead of Washington: the Revolution was a French victory.
As for British incompetence; it’s really General Clinton who takes the biscuit. Taking things back to Yorktown again, when Washington lifted his siege of New York to march the army south to trap Cornwallis, Clinton lingered with his 20,000 men in the now unthreatened city and neglected to pursue. Had he done so, it’s possible that the Continental and French armies could have found *themselves* trapped at Yorktown, sandwiched between two British forces.
May 21st, 2020 at 4:37 pm
Agreed about Howard Pyle being a favorite along with Wyeth and Homer. I knew The Nation Makers only, but not The Battle of Bunker Hill. Glad to find it here. Thanks.