I write this blog, which no one reads and even fewer people follow, to connect to a passion: art history.
My system is to see which artists were born during any given month, pick one, learn about him or her, write what I have learned, and post it in my blog on their birthday. So, each month (when I’m feeling ambitious), I scan my list of artist’s birthdates for a new subject that interests me. Someone I know enough about to want to learn more, and someone I can still learn a lot about. This month my subject was Rembrandt Peale, and learning more about him has been an absolute joy.
Rembrandt Peale, Self-portrait, 1828. Collection of Detroit Institute of Arts
His name was familiar to me from my time as a secretary to the curator of American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but I didn’t remember much about him. I thought he was a portraitist from the colonial period, but I wouldn’t have been able to identify one of his paintings. So, on a rainy and blustery day in early February, after a grocery run, I got back into my pajamas, lit some candles, uncorked a bottle of wine and got to know Rembrandt Peale.
And our meeting was fascinating. Looking at the life of Rembrandt Peale is seeing the face of Colonial America.
Rembrandt Peale, Rubens Peale with a Geranium, 1801. (Rubens was Rembrandt’s brother.)
I remembered correctly. He was, indeed, a portraitist, and he painted the who’s who of our high school American history class: George Washington, John C. Calhoun, Dolley Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson.
Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Jefferson, 1800. Collection of The White House
Rembrandt Peale was born in Philadelphia on February 22, 1778, seven months after the signing of the Declaration of Independance. His father Charles Peale was also an acclaimed portraitist. When Rembrandt was nine, his father painted one of his many portraits of the future president, General George Washington, and he introduced his son to Washington during the sitting. Rembrandt would go on to paint many portraits of the man himself, the first when the artist was just 17.
Before I proceed with Rembrandt, I want to spend a moment more with his father, Charles. As I mentioned, looking into the life of Rembrandt Peale is like seeing the face of Colonial America. This vision begins with his father, who was born in Maryland in 1741 (121 years after the landing of the Mayflower and 34 years before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War).
As a boy, Rembrandt’s father Charles apprenticed as a saddle maker, and as a young man he opened his own saddle shop. He fought in the War of Independence, gaining the rank of captain of the Pennsylvania militia. As an artist, he studied under John Singleton Copley and traveled to England to study under Benjamin West.
A man of many interests, he organized the country’s first scientific expedition, leading him to found the country’s first museum. (He drew many of the plant and animal specimens brought back by Lewis and Clark from their great trans-continental adventure.)
Charles Wilson Peale drawing of Lewis and Clark finding
Peale’s museum’s collection contained a diverse array of botanical, biological and archaeological specimens, including many birds he himself obtained, and those gathered by his son Raphaelle (four years younger than brother Rembrandt) on a trip to South America. (Imagine how raw, exotic and logistically complex travel to South America would be in 1793.)
A museum highlight, which drew thousands of visitors, were the mastodon bones Charles and his son Rembrandt excavated near Newburgh New York and painstakingly reassembled three dimensionally (at the time, an innovative display technique). In Peale’s self portrait below, notice the mastadon skeleton behind the curtain on the right.
Charles Wilson Peale self portrait, The Artist in his Museum, 1822. Collection of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Charles Peale’s son Raphaelle would die a slow, painful – and at the time mysterious – death of arsenic and mercury poisoning brought upon by his work as a taxidermist at his father’s museum. (Raphaelle Peale, who also became a professional painter, is considered to be the first distinguished still-life specialist to emerge in the United States.)
Raphaelle Peale, Still Life – Strawberries, Nuts, &c., 1822. Collection of Art Institute of Chicago
Although respected and well attended, the museum failed to attract government funding, and after Charles’ death the museum’s collection was sold to P.T. Barnum (of the circus fame).
One of the six paintings Charles painted of the president, George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, would sell in 2005 for $21.3 million dollars. The highest price paid for an American portrait.
Charles Wilson Peale, George Washington at the Battle of Princeton. Collection of the United States Senate
Back to the subject of this post, today’s birthday boy, Rembrandt Peale. He began his path as an artist at an early age, completing his first self-portrait at 13, followed four years later by the portrait of George Washington I mentioned earlier. Years later, in 1822, and after many other Washington portraits, he completed Patriae Pater, which is considered one of the best portraits ever painted of the President (behind only Gilbert Stuart’s iconic The Athenaeum which graces our one dollar bill). Peale’s Patriae Pater was purchased by congress in 1832 for $2,000, and it currently hangs in the Oval Office.
Rembrandt Peale, Patriae Pater, 1822. Collection of the United States Senate
Despite marrying at 20 and fathering 9 children, Peale travelled extensively throughout his adult life, seeking inspiration and opportunities as an artist. His travels included time spent in Paris, where he was greatly influenced by Jacques-Louis David and neo-classicism.
Rembrandt Peale, Michael Angelo and Emma Clara Peale, ca. 1826
(Michael Angelo and Emma Clara were Rembrandt’s children.) Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Rembrandt not only followed his father into the profession of portraitist. He also opened a museum, located in Baltimore Maryland, which displayed paintings and manufactured products (a novelty at the time). The museum was elaborately illuminated by gas light (also a novelty), which made a great impression on the visitors and led Peale to acquire an important gas lighting patent.
This photograph of Rembrandt Peale was taken by Mathew Brady, a celebrated nineteenth century photographer who took many photographic portraits of celebrities, including Abraham Lincoln. (His Lincoln photos are used on the five dollar bill and penny). Because of his extensive documentation of the Civil War, Brady is considered to be the father of photo-journalism. He titled this photograph of Rembrandt Peale, “The Oldest Living American Artist.” Imagining this undated portrait was taken in 1860 (the year Peale died at the age of 82), it was taken only 22 years after the first photograph containing people.
Building upon the Colonial/Early America theme, Rembrandt’s brother Titian was also a pioneer in photography, and his other brother Franklin was the Chief Coiner at the Philadelphia Mint. (The nation’s first mint located in the then capital city of Philadelphia.)
Rembrandt Peale died in 1860, on the cusp of the 1861 outbreak of the Civil War. His life spanned the time between the war that birthed the nation and the war that forced it into maturity.
Full disclosure: The day is, as I said, rainy and blustery. My jammies are feeling really good, and I’m enjoying my wine. So getting into my car and driving to the fabulous UCSD library to conduct my research is out of the question. My trusty, encyclopedic Gardner’s Art Through the Ages has no mention of the Peales, and although I have lots of art books, none of them focus on the Colonial Era. Enter Wikipedia. Thank you, Wikipedia! I know you have your flaws, and your detractors. But for someone who went to college before the advent of the internet, you are a marvel. I promise to contribute next time you have a fundraising campaign.