‘The Smoke, The Thunder, The Roar Of The Battle…”

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It is an interesting paradox that, of the two most famous paintings of Bunker Hill, the one that most suggests a real battle was painted by Pyle, the illustrator who lived long afterward, and not by John Trumbull, the painter who saw it (albeit from a distance) and served briefly in the Revolution (see AMERICAN HERITAGE , June, 1958).
I have lived so long in our American past, wrote Howard Pyle , that it is like a certain part of my life. … I think I could paint a Battle of Bunker Hill; I think I could paint a picture of the smoke, the thunder, the roar of the battle, the bareheaded, wounded, and shattered columns of British advancing, the trampled grass, the smoke of the burning houses, and over beyond all the quaint town reposing silently and peacefully in the afternoon sunlight. The image is very clear in my own mind, and if I could materialize it upon canvas I think I might be able to show the sunlight, the heat and the desperate human earnestness of the grim red-coated heroes marching up that hill to their death.
 

It is an interesting paradox that, of the two most famous paintings of Bunker Hill, the one that most suggests a real battle was painted by Pyle, the illustrator who lived long afterward, and not by John Trumbull, the painter who saw it (albeit from a distance) and served briefly in the Revolution (see AMERICAN HERITAGE , June, 1958). Trumbull was, of course, caught up in the artistic discipline of his time, the presentation not of facts but of a kind of moral, heroic pageant, full of static death scenes and noble tableaux. This is what his age called “History”; it did not satisfy a later generation. Pyle (1853-1911), one of the greatest American illustrators, would have no subjects “in costume,” no actors in a masquerade. He was a careful and painstaking researcher, and he used his superb craftsmanship to re-create the past with both realism and deep feeling—as fourteen mural paintings, nineteen books, and literally thousands of illustrations attest. This painting of England’s thin red line moving up Breed’s Hill first appeared in 1898, in Henry Cabot Lodge’s The Story of the Revolution , a century after Trumbull. How modern schools of painting would represent this desperate moment, or which manner is to be preferred, are unanswerable questions. But Pyle, even though he is now out of fashion, does not deserve to be forgotten.