Rembrandt Peale

A single painting tells a story about its subject while the body of work of a painter tells the story of that painter’s life: his moods, how he changes or develops or deteriorates over time, his persistent themes. The body of work is therefore more significant for looking into what a painter is than is any collection of biographical data compiled by some biographer about his love interests, his patrons, his friendships, or the ruminations of himself or the art critics of his time about what his paintings were really about. The same is true of literature. We know how different “Macbeth” is from “Hamlet”, each creating a different world, the first governed by fate and violent action, the second by a self uncertain how and when to take action. And yet the body of Shakespeare’s work tells us all that need be known about the consciousness of its author: how he moves from history to comedy to tragedy to romance, ever trying to contain his tendency to anger. The work is the essence of the author.

A case in point is Rembrandt Peale, son of a well known artist of his time, and even better known in his own right, who was a prolific portrait painter in the early part of the Nineteenth Century. Looking at the body of his work provides a biography of the painter and also how a painter adjusts to changing circumstances that are, for the most part, neither political nor social structural, but cultural in that they have to do with the influences that past painting has on its present practitioner. So let us abandon the view that a painter reflects his time for the view that a painter makes a mark on the painting of his time.


An early Peale, from 1811, is “The Roman Daughter” which presents the exemplary tale from antiquity of a woman who breastfeeds her own father when she visits him in prison where he is chained and so carries out her moral duty to aid a parent even if it violates propriety. Peale is representing this conventional idea of the Napoleonic Age even if the same subject set in a contemporary context would seem to me have not been so easily accepted. The interest of the picture is less in its moral than in its structure which owes much to David in that the lines are clean, the figures elongated and apposite one another, the background and the dress of the two characters simple. The daughter looks away from her father so that as much modesty as possible is preserved, which is not true in other renditions of this story, which also do not show him so clearly to be in chains. So, I conclude, the painting is something of an exercise to show off the painter’s powers rather than an attempt to deepen the audience’s understanding of the story, which is different from what happens in the current age, where we retell the story of Batman as if there was much more that could be squeezed from that story. Peale, for his part, was interested in showing off his ability to provide a dual portrait, one figure standing and one seated, though I do not know why Peale chose this particular subject other than that he was going through the classic Roman stories and came across it.  So we have a real separation between a subject and its execution, which is not unusual for David, whose intriguing portrait of Lavoisier, complete with scientific equipment to dress it up, makes no reference to Lavoisier’s execution by the Revolution.


Peale produced a similar Neoclassical painting in 1820, some ten years later. (Rembrandt was, like his brothers, named after famous artists.)  “The Court of Death” is an ensemble painting showing numerous figures in their death throes in a cave that is also decorated with drapery as well as an exit to the outside world. The various dead sit in front of a throne upon which sits a stern women, though why she is the representative of death is not clear. All of the dead seem to be the result of violence. An ancient warrior stands with his sword above a woman and her baby. A father looks at a young woman. There are indications of sorrow as when a woman holds her hand over her eyes or another woman touches her hand to her forehead as a sign of grief. One young man is gripping the hilt of the knife that stabbed him. I don’t know what, if anything, Peale is trying to allegorize. There is no clear reference to any other kind of death (though commentators say there is to dementia and disease and other things) or to the moral lapses that led to one kind of death rather than another.  This is a far cry from Poussin’s “The Rape of the Sabine Women”, where people are writhing and there are duets and triples within the entire ensemble of violence. Peale is still looking around for a subject matter through which to display his artistic skills, tales from the classics by this time having lost their steam (though to be revived by the Pre-Raphaelites), just as Christian imagery had earlier lost its steam. It would take another decade or two for the Hudson River school to discover in the wilderness a whole new subject matter and allow Thomas Cole, like William Blake, to make use of their allegorical skills. Here death is decorous rather than horrible.


Peale also produces two portraits in that year, 1820, which show a considerable revision in his style. One of these is of William Henry Harrison, not at all the later figure who was elected President in 1840 at the age of 68 only to die when a month into office. It is, rather, a picture of Harrison soon after his victory at Tippecanoe. He is young and handsome. He has a pale face, a long nose, good skin, narrow eyes, and unruly, short hair. His gaze is steady, as befits the Romantic hero we know from Lermontov. His uniform suits him. It has lots of gold braid on a dark uniform that has a high collar. They knew how to design uniforms in those days. He holds a sword in his hand though we can only see the gold of its hilt, that in keeping with the gold motif of the painting. The picture is well composed and most striking, especially the softness of the face which seems to me to capture the way faces are actually molded, skin covering bone and muscle and fat in a gradually changing flesh color.


The same is true of another of his portraits from 1820, one of his daughter, Rosalba Peale. She is clear eyed with a molded face that, as in the Harrison portrait, does justice to the way skin is attached to a face. She has bright brown hair, curled in the fashion of the day. Her neck is gently curved, a point emphasized by the white lace that surrounds it and is probably attached to the black dress she wears under a red shawl that is a nice counterpoint to the brown hair because the red is muted while the brown of the hair is not, all set against a multihued background that is in harmony with the colors in the front of the painting, all setting off her interesting, piercing, but not quite beautiful face, just as the background does the same for the portrait of William Henry harrison. Both these portraits are subtle accomplishments.

The image of the Romantic heroine, her character both clear and soft, supercharged with energy and romance and intelligence, is a motif that Peale carries on into his later work. He paints in 1840 a portrait of his second wife which he calls “Portrait of a Lady”. And it has all the aspects of his mature style. Here there is a blue low cut dress to show off her pale skin. She has large eyes and dark black hair beneath a large white headdress that is somewhat oriental. She touches a finger to her chin, as if to give herself something to do while posing. The background, made up of shades of brown, is darkest around the white headdress, the subject of the portrait looking clearly out at the viewer. That Peale thought he was portraying a type rather than just an individual is made clear by the fact that in 1850 he painted another such painting but this time named it only “Idealized Portrait”. He knew what he was doing.

In general, the change in Peale between his earlier and his later work is that he abandons what must have come to seem the constraints of Neoclassicism for the rich and individual portraits of strikingly interesting people. His palette seems to have grown broader; his designs much more detailed. This shows the movement from Neoclassicism to the Romantic, which is to make that alteration in perspective an international movement rather than one bound to France or England. Peale ends up closer to Ingres than to anyone else, which suggests that American artists, one way or another, had become familiar with the great works of their own and previous times without the benefit of the Internet. It is as if Peale had been waiting for this change in artistic vision to have come along, although he spent the first part of his career waiting for it to happen. There are many artists who spend their entire careers waiting for the times to catch up with them or them with the times. Picasso and Matisse changed often enough within their careers while Sargent outlived his period as did Monet. Peale was lucky enough to outlive his time into a time that suited him.