He's depicted in the painting as a patriot-warrior, resplendent in the gold-braided uniform of a colonel in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

The officer stands near a walled powder magazine in Franklin Square. On his left is a large mortar; behind him, cannon barrels; and to his right, ammunition.

That portrait by famed artists Charles Willson and James Peale may seem similar to their other works portraying wartime figures.

But it's decidedly different. This painting - back in Philadelphia after more than 200 years - tells a story to those who know where to look and how to interpret what they see.

The officer, Benjamin Flower, extends his right arm and points an index finger to the distant cupola of the State House - now Independence Hall - where a bell sounded in 1776 to mark the first reading of the Declaration of Independence.

What was he signaling?

Flower, an unknown compared with other Peale subjects such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, wanted to be remembered for saving what later became known as the Liberty Bell, just ahead of the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777.

He oversaw the removal of 11 bronze bells in the city to prevent them from falling into enemy hands and being melted down into cannon barrels.

Now, for the first time, the Peales' portrait honoring Flower and commemorating the rescue will be placed on public display in the city when the Museum of the American Revolution at Third and Chestnut Streets opens on April 19, 2017.

"As distant and foggy as that time appears to us, this is as close as we can get to looking at actual soldiers," said Philip Mead, director of curatorial affairs and chief historian at the museum. "The paintings are so formal, so strange to the eye, but when you're looking at a Peale painting, you're looking at the reality of their lives."

On Thursday, it was unpacked at the museum, which bustles these days with workers preparing displays and exhibits focusing not only on major figures of the Revolution but on the role of the common man and woman, including free and enslaved African Americans and American Indians.

Flower was one of the common people. He was a hatter and hoped to advance himself though military service.

"Our highest aspiration for the museum is that we create a feeling of empathy for these people who created our nation - even those like Flower who are not so well known," said R. Scott Stephenson, vice president of collections, exhibitions, and programming. "The fellows at Independence Hall were important, but they were only part of the generation that founded the United States of America."

Flower, who owned property at Letitia Court between Chestnut and Market Streets, played a humble but important role in the war. He held the rank of assistant quartermaster general of military stores and later became colonel of an artificers regiment, which supplied the artillery with ammunition and gunpowder. He served at Valley Forge and saw combat during the Battle of Princeton in 1777.

"Like many military officers of his time, he was jealous of larger combat command, but he sacrificed his own inclinations to the public interest," Mead said. "In a war of survival, supply was critically important."

Unlike many other works of art completed after the war, the portrait of Flower was finished while the war was in progress. That very fact may be expressed in the colonel's uniform, though experts can't say conclusively.

The buckle on the leather strap supporting the colonel's sword seems to bear an image similar to those found on weapons, military accoutrements, and currency of the time: an eagle attacking a crane. The message? Britain might be powerful like the eagle but America, the crane, could still inflict a mortal wound.

Such images are sometimes accompanied by the Latin words Exitus in Dubio Est, meaning "the outcome is in doubt." "That's a strange military slogan; it seems to lack confidence," Mead said. "It's meant to inspire sacrifice and virtuous effort."

Further up on Flower's strap is an oval plate with engraved letters, probably the initials "B F" for Benjamin Flower.

"To see a painting of an American during the war is always exciting for its artistic message," Mead said. "How is he standing? Where is he standing? And what does his clothing reveal about him and America during the Revolution."

One of Flower's highlights during the war came in 1777, when Congress ordered the removal of bronze bells from the city, including the one in the tower of the State House. The colonel successfully oversaw the effort before the British arrived.

The Liberty Bell's rescue, Flower's service in the artillery, and the civilian authority at Independence Hall over the military was marked by the Peale painting, which was completed in 1779 or 1780. Flower stands in Franklin Square at a spot now occupied by a history-themed miniature golf course. He died in 1781 of a lung ailment that he may have contracted at Valley Forge, Stephenson said.

While Peale paintings are exhibited at the gallery inside the Second Bank of the United States in the 400 block of Chestnut Street, the Flower portrait was "privately commissioned and relatively unknown," Stephenson said. "A lot of Peale scholars have not seen it in person."

The painting wound up with Flower's sister Rebecca Flower Young, then with her daughter, Mary Young Pickersgill, both of whom were widows who worked as flag-makers in Baltimore during the War of 1812. They and others sewed the famed flag that withstood the bombardment of Fort McHenry and inspired the national anthem. Pickersgill received credit for its making, since she had been commissioned for the work.

The mother and daughter lived in their Baltimore home, which was later purchased by the city in 1927 and dubbed the Star Spangled Banner Flag House. The Flower portrait hung in a dimly lit front parlor or dining room, where schoolchildren and others heard Flower's story.

"We're very happy [the painting] is headed back to Philadelphia," said Amanda Davis, director of the Star Spangled Banner Flag House, referring to the painting's five-year loan.

"I'm hoping people will not only see the Flower portrait but hear of Rebecca's story and Mary's story, too; it's all interconnected."

The painting "will give folks pause to think about what happened in the past," Davis said.

Edward Colimore is a former Inquirer reporter who has written extensively about the history of Philadelphia. ecolimore@comcast.net