The Peale Legacy: The Art of an American Family, 1770-1870

by Lillian Miller



The Peale Family speaks to the necessity for family harmony and spells out the role of the father (for whom in the painting Charles Willson serves as surrogate) as educator and the mother as nurturer, the need for siblings to support and love each other, the republican concern for posterity, and the place of sentiment, or feeling, in establishing the desired familial and social harmony. Through smiling faces, linked arms and hands, and the inclusion of such accessories as a drawing of Raphael's three graces, busts of his mentor Benjamin West and his patron Edmund Jenings flanking his own, a cascade of fruit on the table ending in the "peel" logo, and a loyal family pet guarding the assemblage, Peale fulfilled his purpose. The group portrait not only demonstrates the artistic skills he had acquired in England, but establishes his identity as an artist knowledgeable about the classical past (the busts), as the family educator and purveyor of harmony, and as the father, husband, loving sibling, and dutiful son.

Again and again, in his double or group compositions, Peale expressed these themes as he went about the business of painting portraits. He turned a portrait of his dead infant daughter Margaret, taken at his wife's request, into an expression of Enlightenment "sentiment" in Rachel Grieving, a picture that struck visiting John Adams "prodigiously." In the double portrait of his daughter Angelica with her daughter Charlotte (Mother Caressing her Convalescent Daughter), he emphasized the role of the mother as nurturer, responsible, as he wrote in his Essay on Health, for the care of children, the "stock from which the tree grows." He turned the double portrait of the recently wed Benjamin and Eleanor Ridgely Laming into a celebration of married love by basing its composition on a fifteenth century narrative of love in an exotic garden. Thomas and Henry Sergeant are affectionately linked with their loyal dog, while the artist's mother, Mrs. Charles Peale, surrounds her grandchildren in a loving embrace and Thomas McKean explicates the law and the new federal Constitution to his son, fulfilling his parental responsibility.

Peale took his duties as family educator seriously; he fulfilled parental obligation to his offspring by offering them "good advice, " not only in the hundreds of letters he wrote but in his actual portraits of them. Thus, in the famous The Staircase Group, a portrait of Raphaelle ascending a staircase while the younger Titian (the first by that name) observes from above, Peale was advising his oldest son at the beginning of his professional career that the path to artistic fame was an arduous climb, demanding perseverance.

Charles Willson Peale was the most explicit of the Peale artists in painting family messages into his work. The compositions he created, however, were copied with less ideological content by other members of the family. James Peale connected family members in his elegant portrait of Mme. Dubocq and Her Children through gesture, hair styles, and clothing. Charles Peale Polk adopted the composition and idea of mother instructing a child when he pictured Mrs. Hite conveying lessons from Psalms to her son; Rembrandt Peale also followed his father's arrangement of parent and child in the portrait of Mrs. John Armstrong and Daughter, painted in Paris while John Armstrong was serving as the American minister to France. But fascinated by the art of Peter Paul Rubens and Van Dyck, Rembrandt omitted both narrative and sentiment, concentrating instead on color and textures. Although the daughter hugs her mother, in her frontal gaze, the mother seems oblivious to the daughter's caress.

James Peale learned from Charles how to compose a British conversation piece in his self-portrait with members of his family, but omitted a didactic message, contenting himself with oblique references to family and nature. Raphaelle Peale posed young Osborne Sprigg with his loyal dog in imitation of his father's various portraits of children with pets but however much he tried, he could not avoid imposing his own melancholy on both boy and dog in contrast to his father's propensity for smiling faces.

Rembrandt Peale celebrated his brother's botanical skills in his Rubens with a Geranium, but he was also intent upon proving America's healthy environment for plant life. Unlike his father, he did not attempt to turn this loving portrait into a narrative or allegory. When, over three decades later, Rembrandt decided to paint the likenesses of his son and daughter, he was more interested in pictorial effects than in conveying an idea of sibling affection. The children face the viewer with a pretty but blank gaze; feeling and character are absent from this work, but the gorgeous velvets, satins, and skin textures testify to Rembrandt's painterly skills.

By the nineteenth century attitudes towards the portrait had changed, and the portraitists such as Rembrandt Peale concentrated their efforts on painting pictures rather than conveying character or conveying moral messages. The eighteenth-century desire to expand the significance of portraiture diminished if it did not die out altogether. But despite this change, the Peale artists could not rid themselves of their concern with family, although they did so in diverse ways. Rembrandt Peale's Roman Daughter, constructed purposefully as a history painting with a message, dramatized the responsibility of a child to a parent rather than a parent to a child, as inferred in his father's earlier reading of the role of Fidele in Shakespeare's Cymbeline, in which he portrayed the actress Nancy Hallam in the role of the disguised princess defying her misguided father and evil stepmother by posing as a young page in order to thwart their marriage plans for her.

Raphaelle Peale could not follow his father's advice to paint portraits instead of stilllifes and continued to turn out jewellike renditions of fruits and desserts; subtly embedded in these small panels, however, if one follows Brandon Fortune's argument in The Peale Family; Creation of a Legacy, is Raphaelle's obedience to his father's philosophy of temperance and restraint, a philosophy that as an alcoholic, he could not observe in actual practice.

When Titian Ramsay Peale, naturalistartist on the Long Expedition in 1819-20, chose a scene in the American West worthy of sketching in watercolor, he fastened on an antelope family, but more significant was his watercolor showing the actual wilderness of America's western landscape in the realistic Dusky Wolf [Lupus NubilisJ Devouring a Black- Tail Deer Head. His brother Rubens, who in the 1850s at an advanced age took up painting, was more amenable to the family theme, sketching a family of quail in a delightful domestic landscape.


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