In Pursuit of Fame: Rembrandt Peale, 1778 - 1860

by Lillian Miller



The influence of the Anglo-American portrait tradition on Rembrandt Peale's work culminated in portraits painted in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., between 1803, when he returned from England, and 1808, when he left Philadelphia for Paris. His beautifully painted images of both men and women demonstrate an increasing skill in the use of his materials, especially as Peale strove to capture the tangibility of flesh and fabric. Wishing to paint important works that projected character as well as likeness, as in the best of the British portraits, Rembrandt gave careful study to the chemistry of paint and developed a palette of warm and rich colors, utilized active brush strokes to impart visual energy to the surface of the canvas as well as to the image, and paid meticulous attention to detail. One of the finest in this group of works is his 1805 portrait of President Thomas Jefferson.

By 1808, Rembrandt's discontent with the limited opportunities offered artists in the United States turned his attention longingly towards Paris. His father made the trip possible by commissioning him to paint portraits of French intellectuals and artists for his Philadelphia Museum gallery. Rembrandt traveled to Paris twice. His first visit lasted from the end of May to early September, 1808; his second from fall, 1809, to the fall of 1810. In Paris, Rembrandt studied the Old Masters in the Louvre, French masters of portraiture at Versailles, and the work of contemporary artists, such as Jacques Louis David, in their studios. He developed his drawing skills, experimented with the management of light and color, and learned how to project anatomical structure through glazes, light, and color that resulted in more vivid and three-dimensional images. He also discovered the ancient technique of encaustic painting being revived at the time by Parisian artists, which involved the melting of wax instead of oil into pigment. Broader handling of forms, warm tones, and brilliant color mark such a Parisian portrait as that of the eminent zoologist and comparative anatomist, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

Paris fired Rembrandt's enthusiasm for art, and when he returned to Philadelphia, he was determined to encourage a similar appreciation in America. In 1811 he opened the Apollodorian Gallery, the first privately owned exhibition gallery in the United States devoted exclusively to the fine arts. Three years later, he moved his art gallery to Baltimore and prospered for a time both as a portraitist and a museum keeper. Some of his finest portraits were painted during these Baltimore years. In Dr. Horace H. Hayden, for example, rich colors, strongly realized physical presence, and tight composition reveal Rembrandt's effort to paint a meaningful picture as well as a specific likeness. Parisian examples also lay behind the grand manner portrait of A Boy from the Taylor Family. Rich in color and dramatic in its composition, the boy's head and body follow the prescribed mathematical proportions Rembrandt learned during his Paris sojourn, while the figure is posed like the Apollo of Praxiteles, suggesting that the artist utilized a cast.

In 1814, during the War of 1812, Baltimore successfully withstood a British invasion, and three years later, the city commissioned Rembrandt to paint portraits of the men who had led its defense. One of the six that he completed was Gen. Samuel Smith, a portrait full of strength and vitality, and what might be called "ennobled realism."

Rembrandt Peale's Baltimore Museum was designed to educate the public in art, develop Americans' imagination, refine manners, and add to national prestige. By including in his gallery examples of the different subjects available for artistic exploration, Rembrandt hoped to expand not only the market for art, but also the sensitivity of his fellow citizens to beauty in all its manifestations. To suggest the variety of art that Rembrandt Peale created, the Portrait Gallery exhibition re-creates a nineteeth-century art gallery in which appear portraits, landscapes, lithographs and other works on paper, and such interpretations of his Washington portrait as Washington Before Yorktown. Most interesting in this group are the paintings he completed in Italy, especially the Cascatelles of Tivoli, which he painted in 1829 while traveling from Rome to Florence. Although Rembrandt and his son Angelo, who accompanied him on this journey, felt "disgust at the filth of the town," he was "enchanted" by the Cascatelles as they "tumbled from the opposite mountain to a midway projection, green with eternal showers of spray," and for four days remained in the town in order to capture the scene.[2] In Italy, Rembrandt copied works that were popular among his contemporaries, including Judith with the Head of Holofernes after Cristofano Allori, and the Madonna della Seggiola after Raphael, intending them for a "Gallery of Italian Pictures." The Old Master influence may be noted in his brooding portrait of the sculptor Horatio Greenough, painted while the two artists worked in Florence.

For mid-century Victorians, and particularly for the Boston Unitarian literary group whose aesthetic ideals Rembrandt shared, beauty was mated to virtue, and with virtue, became a force for good. Such an artistic rationale, together with the popularity of romantic images of spiritualized women, influenced Rembrandt to create "fancy pieces" such as Day Dreams, which shows a woman engaged in reverie; in the nineteenth century, such subjects were interpreted as manifestations of a woman's inner life, her spiritual nature.

The portraits Rembrandt painted in Boston differ from his New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia works. More imaginative, more literary, more aesthetic, and more generalized, they reflect the aesthetic sensibility and idealism of Boston Unitarian culture with its prescription of repose, order and harmony. Such a description fits the highly finished portrait of Eliza Pickering Gray, which reveals Rembrandt's delight in color and sweeping forms and his skills at rendering flesh textures. As a likeness, it is highly generalized and follows Rembrandt's convention at the time of presenting women with long graceful necks, arched brows, full slightly-upturned mouths and somewhat oval eyes.

In his ambition to achieve Old Master status in the New World, Rembrandt attempted to create art that would reach poetic heights. He was particularily able to do this in portraits of family members, as in the Flemish-like head of his daughter, Rosalba Peale. Limited by his patronage to portraiture, he produced richly painted and refined images intended to raise the level of feeling in his viewers, transcend actuality, and convey beauty through color, textures, expression. His portraits continue to surprise and interest us today by their freshness of color and individuality of likeness. In its extensive presentation of images of some of the country's preeminent individuals as well as of the middle-class America -- merchants and their families, physicians, lawyers, religious leaders, and small-scale industrialists -- this long-awaited exhibition of paintings by Rembrandt Peale offers a beautiful record of the social and cultural world of the young republic.


Go to page 1 / 2 / 3

This is page 2


Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2007 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.