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Monday, June 24, 2013

Rubens Peale

Portrait of Rubens Peale with a Geranium, 1801, Rembrandt Peale
Rubens Peale, 1807, Rembrandt Peale

In simply looking at his ruddy slender face, delicate features, with tiny spectacles, and curly hair, the one word that might come to mind is "nerd." In the case of Rubens Peale, from the huge family of "painting Peales," you wouldn't be far off. As painted by his older brother, Rembrandt, in Rubens Peale with a Geranium (above) around 1801 when Rubens was just seventeen, we see a certain affection, but then have to wonder, what seventeen-year-old boy would seem to be so in love with a Geranium as to be painted with one? A second portrait, again by Rembrandt Peale some six years later (minus the Geranium), shows a young man with the characteristic Peale nose and receding hairline bespectacled and, despite a somewhat handsome face, no less "nerdy" looking. His sister's miniature portrait of him (Anna Claypoole Peale, below, left) is that of a mature young man (around thirty-five), though somewhat less flattering a depiction than that of her more adept brother.
Rubens Peale, 1830-30, Anna Claypoole Peale

Appearances can be deceiving, but not in this case. Though, like his older brothers and sisters, Rubens was taught by his father, Charles Willson Peale, to paint, it was a vocation for which he was ill-suited. In the early part of the 19th century, few people wore crude spectacles unless they were absolutely necessary. Rubens had weak eyes in a family whose stock in trade was miniature portraits. That was a critical handicap. And judging by his choice of still-life subjects, the man apparently was something of a gastronome with a sweet tooth. He painted luscious fruit and delectable looking cakes. He also like painting birds, and even combined the two as seen in his Magpie Eating Cake, from 1865.

Magpie Eating Cake, 1865, Rubens Peale
Rubens Peale was an intellectual. He took after his father, but not his painting father, rather his collecting father. Along with his brothers, Rembrandt, the painter, and Titian, the naturalist, Rubens primarily spent his adult life managing the family museums; and inasmuch as they went bankrupt, perhaps none too well. Moving from the family museums in Philadelphia and Baltimore, in 1825 Rubens opened his own enterprise in New York. Unfortunately, he was in direct competition with a museum run by none other than the flamboyant P.T. Barnum (in his pre-circus days). It was not a fair match. The Peales had culture--art and science. Barnum had a mermaid, a midget general (Tom Thumb) and singer Jenny Lind. Guess who won? By 1837, Rubens was broke eventually forced to sell out to the competition at a time when the family museums in Philadelphia and Baltimore had also bit the dust.

Wedding Cake, Wine, Almonds, and Raisins, 1860, Rubens Peale,
what we'd call a fruitcake today.
At the age of fifty-three, Rubens and his second wife (along with six kids) chose a secluded retirement to the family farm in Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania, where, despite his poor eyesight, during the final ten years of his life he kept a journal and did still-lifes, turning out more than 130 paintings. Not one of them was a portrait.

Still-life with Grapes, Watermelon, and Peaches, 1863, Rubens Peale


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