Gotta Have It: Shortly After Bunker Hill, Everyone Wanted a Picture of Israel Putnam

When the Red Sox, Patriots or Bruins won championships, it was always the MVP or star of the series for whom jersey sales skyrocketed.

Companies rush to produce the star’s jersey, photo or poster, and fans buy them in record quantities.

Whether Tom Brady, Brad Marchand or David Ortiz – when celebrating a big victory, people in Boston these days want to wear that star player’s jersey or have their picture front and center. As we celebrate victories, it’s the natural reaction to also celebrate the heroes that led the way to that victory.

From the Society of Cincinnatus A mezzotint of Israel Putnam only weeks after the Battle of
Bunker Hill was a very popular, commercial success at the time showing that Putnam was the early interpreted hero of the Battle as opposed to more prominent figures today like Dr. Joseph Warren and General William Prescott.

The Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 was no different, and new research by Battle historian and author Eugene Procknow (a frequent Bunker Hill Day contributor to the Patriot Bridge), has found that following the successful battle – supporters of the Patriot cause in Boston, and even in Great Britain, rushed to get mementos of the star of the battle.

And it wasn’t Dr. Joseph Warren.

Neither was it William Prescott.

In fact, commercial artist Joseph Hiller within two weeks after the battle began producing and selling mezzotint reproductions of Major General Israel Putnam that resulted in huge commercial success as Patriots flocked to get their trendy celebration of the occasion. Procknow said he has studied many aspects of the Battle and the Revolution, but has recently turned to looking at the art of the immediate time to find out who the general public revered – and Hiller’s mezzotints of Putnam, and later other Patriot figures, show just who it was that people considered the heroes of the day.

“This production was a commercial entity and a way to mass produce to the mass market of that day and sell it to them quickly,” said Procknow. “The mezzotint process allowed you to make 700 copies of a painting and get them out to the masses. What’s unique about this one is it shows the real interest in the Battle of Bunker Hill and the interest in Israel Putnam as the leader of that battle.

“Hiller did these mezzotints only a few weeks after the battle,” he continued. “It was on everyone’s mind. That they chose Putnam shows he was the hero of the battle at the time. Then about 40 or 50 years after, many artists put Joseph Warren and William Prescott as the heroes. If that was the case, a few weeks after the battle, it would have been William Prescott or Joseph Warren, but they chose Israel Putnam.”

That’s likely because it is what people wanted. Procknow said it’s taking nothing away from Prescott or Warren, but it signals once again that Putnam’s role at Bunker Hill was minimized by the mythology and the art of the battle as time went on.

Hiller did not fight at Bunker Hill, but did answer the call at Lexington and other locations during the Revolution. However, he is best known for his mezzotints of popular heroes during – and not after – the Revolutionary War. The mezzotint process was developed in Germany in the 1600s. It was an early way to allow common people to have fine art in their homes. Wealthy people were the only ones that were able to afford paintings, and being able to get a mezzotint opened the door of the fine art world to the common people. By using a metal plate, artists would etch the lights and darks of a popular painting, and then use it to create a print on parchment paper of the painting. Later, they would go in and add color by hand to the print.

For Hiller’s print of Putnam, there is quite a bit of detail in it – with smoke billowing up behind him due to the burning of Charlestown. He is wearing a traditional uniform and a red sash. The red flag of the Connecticut militia is flying over the hill, with detail of the redoubt that had been built showing. Putnam is referred to as ‘The Honorable Israel Putnam.’ He was also described as a major general of the “United Forces.”

Step Right up, Get Your Putnam Painting

The original painting was done by Benjamin Blythe – a regional artist also from Salem – and the mezzotint was a business collaboration between the two men.

“In the tint you can clearly see Bunker Hill and see how the redoubts were constructed,” he said. “You can almost hear Putnam saying, ‘Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.’ I believe this is the first painting mezzotint of a Continental Army officer in existence. The Continental Army was formed only a few days after the Battle. Bunker Hill took place before Washington arrived.”

A particular interest of the mezzotint is how it was driven by commercial demand. While Joseph Warren was a popular figure in the 1800s when looking at Bunker Hill, and Putnam was often minimized or shown leading the retreat – which is historically accurate, the most well-known figures from the Battle today were not commercially viable in the aftermath of the battle. People didn’t want to buy renderings of those men, but rather they wanted to have a reproduction of Putnam.

Many in the Boston area had been filled with Patriotic zeal after Bunker Hill. They wanted reminders of the Battle on the mantels, on their walls, and in their formal areas. It was popular to show their support, and it was a quick way to have a hero of the battle on the wall that same summer.

“They wouldn’t have created it if there was no market for it,” said Procknow. “Hiller and Blythe collaborated on this. I expect they made an economic deal for the proceeds of the sale. There was clearly a market for this type of art…They were all out in a couple of weeks. They had to work on it quick to get it done. I think it’s fascinating people gravitated to it.”

It was, he said, a symbol of solidarity and popularity – as people raised their eyebrows at the resilience and grit of the Patriots even in defeat at Bunker Hill, they also wanted to be part of it.

“The popularity of this mezzotint shows the Patriotic zeal people felt after Bunker Hill,” he said. “The artists tapped into that zeal. People wanted something like this in their home to demonstrate their Independence and devotion to the cause. It was in demand.”

British Wanted It Too

The zeal of the early Americans to the mezzotint of Putnam also spread to enemy territory – startling enough.

In England, a copycat mezzotint artist created his own rendition of Putnam at Bunker Hill that seemed to celebrate the Patriot cause and Putnam as the hero of that early rebellion.

The tint is attributed to Johann Martin Will, a German engraver from England who produced the Putnam image – but clearly with some British understandings of soldiers and officers that likely didn’t exist in the gruff and gritty farmer and tavern owners that Putnam was.

“So even the British thought Putnam was the hero of the battle too – a real gritty American is what they wanted to see and that was Israel Putnam,” he said. “It’s probably a better quality production than Hiller, but it’s more stylish and formal than what Putnam really looked like. It’s so interesting to me this mezzotint piece was so popular on both sides of the Atlantic. That is very unique because it doesn’t happen later in the war.”

In the British version, Putnam is leaning on the cannon, which is a military art sign of victory – showing that even the common English folks thought of the Battle as being won by the Patriots.

He is also pictured in an officers uniform, with all the things on it that a British officer would have worn – but certainly nothing that Putnam would have had on during the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The Hiller version shows him in more plain attire, which is likely more accurate.

“He had none of the trappings of an officer or soldier,” said Procknow. “He did have a sash on, but the rest of him is plain. That has a lot to do with the American ideal of a farmer coming in and fighting the mighty British Empire. He has a sword, but it is small and not the big sword with a bejeweled hilt. It’s plain.”

Even the adorning under both works elevate Putnam to a status he likely didn’t display, such as Hiller listing him as “Esquire.”

“People at the time would have rolled over in their grave at him being an esquire,” said Procknow. “Putnam was nearly illiterate. He wrote ‘get’ as ‘git’ and ‘dog’ as ‘dug.’ If you tried to read his writing today, it would be illegible. He had to have officers translate his writing into English. Calling him ‘The Honorable’ would have made people laugh at the time.”

Where is it Today

The British version of the picture is much more prevalent today, going at about $2,000 to $5,000. The American version is very rare and there are only two copies left. The Society of Cincinnatus purchased one recently for about $20,000. Overall, the story of Putnam at Bunker Hill dominated the art of the time, unlike later in the history of the country, and that’s something Procknow said is an important way to look at such major events in the Revolution.

“I wouldn’t take anything away from Dr. Warren or William Prescott, but theirs is a story about a martyr, creating much more of a galvanizing action,” he said. “It makes for a nicer story later on. Art is an underappreciated part of history. I’m starting to look at the art of the period to interpret the reaction people had of events in history.”

Certainly in this case, the football jersey everyone wanted was that of Israel Putnam.

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