Rembrandt Peale

The American painter Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) was a competent, if uneven, portraitist. His earlier portraits are fresher and more expressive than his later ones.

Rembrandt Peale was born in Bucks County, Pa., on Feb. 22, 1778. He studied first with his father, the renowned painter, Charles Willson Peale, and then with Benjamin West in England in 1801. He returned to the United States in 1804 and set up a studio in Philadelphia. An important work of this period is the graceful, richly handled portrait of Thomas Jefferson (1805) at the age of 62.

Peale made two trips to France, in 1808 and 1809-1810, carrying letters from Jefferson, an intimate of his father. Peale came to know the painters Jacques Louis David and François Gérard, the sculptor Antonio Canova, and the American émigré painter John Vanderlyn. In Paris, Peale painted portraits of famous men for his father's museum. His work was sometimes marred by a hard linear quality, as he tried to rival the smooth, silky quality of David, but sometimes it had a beautiful mellow tone.

Peale was instrumental in founding the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with his father, whom he succeeded as director in 1810. Dominating the academy's show of 1812 was his first historical painting, The Roman Daughter. The subject was daring: an imprisoned father kept alive by milk from his daughter's breast. He executed several "porthole" paintings of George Washington, the best known being the one he executed in 1822.

In 1825 Peale was elected president of the American Academy of the Fine Arts. Later he established a museum and picture gallery in Baltimore, Md. For several years, in mid-career, he taught art in Philadelphia public schools. In 1853 his instruction book, Graphics: The Art of Accurate Delineation, was published. He died in Philadelphia on Oct. 3, 1860.

Peale's most ambitious painting was The Court of Death (1820), a huge canvas containing 23 allegorical figures. Based on "Death," a poem by Beilby Porteus, it depicted Faith, Hope, Virtue, and Pleasure, who had been posed for by his daughters, and Old Age, modeled on his father. Death was a hooded figure at whose feet a young man had been struck down. The dramatic contrast of lights and darks was typical of the romantic period in art, especially in Europe, but the allegorical mode was part of the sentiment of the republican era in America. The work was sent on tour as a "great moral painting."


Further Reading on Rembrandt Peale

A short sketch of Peale's life is in Municipal Museum of Baltimore, An Exhibition of Paintings by Rembrandt Peale (1937). There is information on him in Charles Coleman Sellers, Charles Willson Peale (2 vols., 1947; 1 vol., rev. ed. 1969), and Charles H. Elam, comp., The Peale Family: Three Generations of American Artists (1967). For a good discussion of Peale and the general historical background see Oliver W. Larkin, Art and Life in America (1949; rev. ed. 1960).

Additional Biography Sources

Miller, Lillian B., In pursuit of fame: Rembrandt Peale, 1778-1860, Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992.