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ART REVIEW

Accuracy is in the details

Prosperi painting depicts pivotal moment in the Battle of Bunker Hill

Detail of 'The First Casualty of Bunker Hill' Detail of "The First Casualty of Bunker Hill." (Courtesy of Warren Prosperi)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / July 1, 2011

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SOUTHBOROUGH — Through the early morning hours of June 17, 1775, American colonists dug a trench and built a wall on Breed’s Hill. As dawn broke, the British below saw the activity and lobbed cannonballs at the culprits — to no avail, because they couldn’t shoot them high enough.

But one cannonball bounced up the hill and hit a man — believed to be Asa Pollard, a Tewksbury farmer who had come with his brother, his uncle, a nephew, and several buddies to support the cause. Pollard was killed. The Battle of Bunker Hill ensued. Another American didn’t fall until late afternoon.

“The First Casualty of Bunker Hill,’’ an elegant, minutely detailed 7-by-10-foot painting by Warren and Lucia Prosperi now filling the front hallway at Vose Galleries, captures the moment: The early morning sun casts a rosy glow as men lean over the dead man’s body, stunned and sickened.

“It seemed like an incidental death. Not the heat of the battle. But after Asa’s death, people started leaving,’’ Warren says. Prosperi is animated, on the edge of his seat in his studio, a former carriage house that adjoins the house he shares with his wife, Lucia, and son, Kit, in Southborough. He’s 62, neatly dressed in a tie and vest on a hot day.

He adds, “The guy in charge, Prescott, said ‘Bury this guy. I need to keep my men in place.’ ’’

It was a pivotal moment.

“This was a moment of choice, a symbol of the choice to go to war those farmers faced, on what Abigail Adams called ‘the day of decision,’ ’’ Warren says.

He undertook to paint it. First, the Prosperis dove into research. They brought on historical researcher Kevin McDermott to keep the facts straight, which was not easy.

“The whole process was unwrapping a giant, fuzzy ball of confusion,’’ McDermott says. “The painting ended up being completely different than it was going to be.’’ He says the Prosperis initially envisioned a painting of Pollard’s burial, but McDermott didn’t deem their source material for that scene reliable.

“Never, ever did Warren and Lucia dig in their heels,’’ he continues. “In every respect, they respected the historical record.’’

“You can make it dead accurate,’’ says Lucia, 60, nursing a cup of licorice tea in Warren’s studio, “and still not totally know what happened.’’

There was much more to do before the paint hit the canvas.

The Prosperis hired historical reenactors and staged the scene on a friend’s property. Lucia took hundreds of photos, from which Warren would ultimately paint his mural. To add another level of chaos, a film crew was on hand to document the process; an independent film about the Prosperis is in the beginning stages.

In all, the painting took two years to complete and cost about $60,000, underwritten by a private investor.

“The First Casualty of Bunker Hill’’ is part of an exhibition, “Duets: Themes and Variations: New Paintings by Warren Prosperi,’’ at Vose Galleries through July 16. In addition to the mural, there are several paired paintings. “Casting Upstream’’ and “Stripping Out Line’’ depict a fisherman knee-deep in water — in one, a shimmery expanse, in the other, burbling white water. “Museum Epiphany I’’ and “Museum Epiphany II’’ portray a young woman encountering classical statues in the Museum of Fine Arts.

David Croll, an MFA trustee and a collector of American Impressionism and Boston School paintings, is a longtime admirer of Warren Prosperi’s work.

“He’s probably one of the best contemporary figurative painters I’ve seen,’’ Croll says. “[Looking at a Prosperi painting] you know it’s a current artist, with a sensibility that’s modern, but it’s also an academic painting, classically representational.

“He draws allusions to Caravaggio, Velázquez, Sargent,’’ Croll continues. “He’s trying to capture a moment with a figure reacting to surroundings. An ‘aha’ moment. Even with a portrait.’’

The Bunker Hill painting succeeds on many levels. (The Prosperis don’t allow the painting to be reproduced in its entirety; the only way to see the completed work is in person.) Prosperi knows how to make a dramatic composition, how to capture light and the subtlety of skin tones, and perhaps most importantly, how to convey the emotional reality of the moment.

“It’s a multiple portrait,’’ he says. “All about the psychology of the people.’’

Prosperi is not well known in the commercial art world. As a young man, he taught himself to paint by copying masterpieces at the MFA. But his interests were contrary to those of the art world at the time. Lucia works in tandem with Warren on all the paintings, and her initials appear on the back. They have made a living creating commissioned portraits, mostly of people who run hospitals.

“We build a vision together,’’ Warren says. “She knows where that ends and the easel work begins.’’

Their interest in history painting began 20 years ago, when the Joslin Diabetes Center invited Warren to paint a series of murals about the clinic’s history. Ten years ago, Massachusetts General Hospital asked him to capture a moment from MGH history: the first use of ether.

“Coming out of modernism, history painting was the lowest of the low. It hadn’t been practiced for a long time,’’ Warren says. “We thought, Why not revive history painting, and be journalistic and factual about it?’’

The history paintings that most people think of — such as Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 “Washington Crossing the Delaware’’ — don’t depict what really happened. “It’s the operatic approach. The opposite of what we’re doing,’’ Warren says. “It goes for the message and leaves out the facts. We pick a moment where the facts and the details convey the message.’’

The Prosperis intend to make “The First Casualty of Bunker Hill’’ the first in a suite of four Revolutionary War paintings, and they’re seeking backing for the project. They say they hope to find someone who will purchase and donate them to the city of Boston.

Warren calls the project “a suite for unsung heroes.’’ Each painting will depict an “aha moment,’’ including an image of Samuel Whittemore, an elderly colonist facing down a British rifleman after the Lexington alarm; Henry Knox’s ox-drawn transport of cannon over the Berkshires from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston; and American rabble-rousers confronting a Custom House guard, which led to the Boston Massacre.

It’s not all about glory, heroism, and legend-making.

“We don’t want to filter out the ugly stuff,’’ Lucia says. “We’re working . . . so people can feel what people went through.

“It’s familiar to us,’’ she adds, “like what we’re witnessing in the Middle East right now.’’

Indeed, the Prosperis’ history painting lines up with work by contemporary artists who have traveled to the Middle East to document strife there, such as journalistic war painters Steve Mumford and Arabella Dorman. The Prosperis’ methods are cinematic, like those of contemporary photographers such as Gregory Crewdson. Bringing a portrait painter’s depth of psychological realism to the table, the Prosperis make history paintings that are distinctly contemporary.

“We’ve never been in synch with the times [before],’’ Lucia says. “We’re excited.’’

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.

DUETS: Theme and Variations: New Paintings by Warren Prosperi

At: Vose Galleries, 238 Newbury St. 617-536-6176,

www.vosegalleries.com.

Through July 16.