The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931) by Grant Wood
Meaning and Interpretation of American History Painting

Pin it

Midnight Ride of Paul Revere
By Grant Wood.
Regarded as one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931)


The Painting
Interpretation of other Modern American Paintings


Name: The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931)
Artist: Grant Wood (1892-1942)
Medium: Oil on masonite
Genre: History painting
Movement/Style: American Scene painting
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of paintings
by Realist painters
like Grant Wood, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Grant Wood

Seen today as one of the most influential 20th century painters of the American Midwest, Wood was born on a farm in Iowa, where he stayed for most of his life, teaching painting and drawing at a school in Cedar Rapids. His rural midwest upbringing had a huge impact on his artwork, as did several trips to Europe. A visit to Germany, introduced him to the realism of 15th-century Flemish painting, as well as works of the Netherlandish Renaissance and the medieval painting of the German School. At the same time he became acquainted with the modern artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement. When he returned to the States he applied much of what he had learned to his paintings of rural America. Associated with styles such as American Regionalism, his European-style realist painting - with its unusual depictions of rural America and minute attention to detail - led to him being dubbed "the Hans Memling of the American Midwest." See, for instance, his masterpiece American Gothic (1930, Art Institute of Chicago).

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931) illustrates Wood's meticulous approach to landscape painting. Although nominally concerned with Paul Revere's famous ride from Boston to Lexington, Wood shows little interest in the ride itself, and instead, focuses on the landscape and local architecture of colonial Massachusetts. It is therefore a highly personal view of American culture: part-adulation and part-mocking. Not unlike Wood's masterpiece American Gothic (1930, Art Institute of Chicago), The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere derives its impact from a combination of innovation and ambiguity.

The Painting

One of the best-known images in American art, it depicts the historic night of 18 April 1775, when the patriot Paul Revere rode from Boston to Lexington to warn of the approach of the British and to call the Minutemen to arms. In the nineteenth century, this event from the Revolutionary War was elevated to the status of legend by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride", one of the most popular poems in American literature. However, Wood has created neither a historical reconstruction, nor an illustration for Longfellow's poem, but rather his own pictorially dramatic narrative, set in a timeless New England landscape dotted with dollhouse architecture.



Wood uses the toy-like simplicity of the colonial-style buildings to underscore, in a slightly comic way, the unreal mythic dimensions of the fable. Further evidence of his intent to affectionately lampoon the saga is given by the fact that the model for Paul Revere's noble steed was a rocking-horse that Wood borrowed from a neighbour especially for the purpose.

The precise style of oil painting, together with the high viewpoint, give the picture its own compelling logic. So consistent is the sharp focus and so convincing the detail, that the narrative itself is readily comprehended. Lights mark the rider's progress - from the distant flecks on the horizon, past the inn, to the lighted foreground houses, where minute figures already react to the importance of Revere's message. The painting captures the moment in which horse and rider rocket past a simplified version of the church which still stands in Lexington Common, the place where the Revolutionary War began the day after Paul Revere's ride.

To create the finely detailed, smooth surface of works such as this, Wood often painted on masonite. Oil paint was applied in glazes and linear strokes, in imitation of the technique of fifteenth-century German or Flemish painters. It was after a visit to Germany that the artist adopted the meticulous illusionism evident in this painting.

During the 1930s, the decade of his greatest productivity and fame, Wood made regular lecture tours, promoting his idea for an identifiably American art that would be regionally based without being primitive or provincial. Regionalism, as Wood saw it, was a return to painting rural America: in his case the landscapes and people of Iowa - a state in the rural heartland. Wood's art struck a chord with most Americans, especially those living in the cities. He found a ready market for his works among wealthy city collectors, including Hollywood celebrities, who identified with his slightly sardonic, yet sanitized, view of rural American life and history.

Interpretation of other Modern American Paintings

Black Abstraction (1927) by Georgia O'Keeffe.
From her early abstract period.

The Lighthouse at Two Lights (1929) by Edward Hopper.
Coastal landscape from the master of 'silent paintings'.

Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931) by Georgia O'Keeffe.
Symbolism from New Mexico.

Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper.
Edgy genre painting by one of America's greatest urban artists.

Pasiphae (1943) by Jackson Pollock.
Early expressionist painting from the star of the New York School.

Seated Woman (1944) by Willem de Kooning.
An early semi-abstract female figure anticipating the "Woman" series.


• For the meaning of other Realist paintings, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.