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Friday, November 11, 2011

James Peale

The Lamplight Portrait, 1822, James Peale
I think it's fair to say that every one of us carries with us a photo of one or more loved ones. It's almost a prerequisite for being a grandmother or a new father. We take these photos so much for granted that unless someone asks to see them, we might seldom look at them ourselves, yet just knowing they are tucked away safely in a wallet or purse somehow gives us a sense of security both in having them near at all times and psychologically in keeping them safe from harm. Now, imagine not having them. Imagine living before 1840, the approximate date for the invention of practical photography. It was a time when only the wealthy could afford this feeling of well-being in the form of tiny miniature portraits, painstakingly painted on ivory, worn around the neck on a gold chain as a pendant or inside a tiny, gold locket. Men sometimes carried them in a small gold case but this was relatively rare. Those who couldn't afford them, could carry such beloved images only in their hearts.

James Peale Painting a Miniature,
c. 1800, Charles Willson Peale
Up until the middle of the nineteenth century when small portrait photos came into being, the painted portrait miniature was the a staple item for artists, though of course it took a special breed to not just be able to paint a reasonable likeness, but to do so in such a small size. Seldom were miniature painted portraits more than two inches in diameter, perhaps no more than three inches tall. Imagine painting eyelashes with a brush the size of an eyelash. And speaking of eyes, besides the skill and a keen artistic sense, such a painter had to have good eyesight. Even with the aid of various optical devices, it was a young man or woman's trade. One such young man was James Peale. James, of course, was the younger brother of Charles Willson Peale from whom he leaned his trade. Charles, being older, either didn't have the patience, or lacked the requisite eyesight to handle such things. James was a more than adequate painter of wall-size portraits, so from about 1895 on, his brother left him to handle this highly lucrative side of their portrait business.

Mad Anthony Wayne, c. 1795,
James Peale, 1 3/4 by 1 3/8 inches,
(shown here about twice life size).
The medium was oils, the surface was highly polished ivory. Working so small, there could be no imperfections to have to deal with, and only a highly polished surface would take the incredible amount of detail crammed into so small an area that such portraits entailed. Born in 1749, James Peale was eight years younger than his older brother. From the time when Charles could no longer handle (or chose not to) the incredible demands of this type of painting, until 1820 (25 years) when James' eyesight also began to fail, he painted little else. In later years, he turned to still-life painting instead (below, left).  In turn, James Peale passed this type of art on to his daughters, Anna, Margaretta, (seen below) and Sarah. Unfortunately, with the advent of photography, miniature painters quickly found their expensive services no longer in demand, even though the tarnished, brown daguerreotype images that replaced them were a far cry from the incredible, exquisite loveliness to be found in the color portraits ladies for generations had worn close to their hearts.

Still-life with Watermelon and Grapes,
1824, James Peale

Anna and Margaretta Peale, 1805,
James Peale

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