As a defining moment in the history of the United States, the American Revolution was instantly transfigured into sacred myth, constantly retold and reimagined by artists of the young Republic. Most, following the European tradition, depicted the violent birth of the nation as grand opera, its heroes larger than life, their struggles titanic, and their virtues sublime. In marked contrast, William Ranney pictured the Revolution on a less elevated, though no less moral, plane.
William Tylee Ranney, First News of the Battle of Lexington, 1847, oil on canvas, 44 1/16 x 63 5/16 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina
First News of the Battle of Lexington is one of a series of scenes depicting ordinary people responding to extraordinary events. The skirmish between redcoats and minutemen at Lexington, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775, signaled the beginning of the War of Independence. However, rather than represent the actual encounter, Ranney turns our attention to the aftermath. Describing the painting, one commentator, possibly the artist himself, notes how “the tidings spread—men galloped from town to town beating the drum and calling to arms. The people snatched their rifles and fowling pieces, and hurried towards Boston. The voice of war rang through the land, and preparations were every where commenced for united action.”
Ranney’s anonymous farmers and tradesmen, rallying to the call of their country, exemplified the collective heroism of Americans. It was no coincidence the artist’s tribute to selfless courage and patriotism appeared just as the United States was preparing for war against Mexico. In First News of the Battle of Lexington, Ranney created an image of a valiant past to call to arms a new generation of Americans.