Peale Family Dog Foils Burglary!
That could have been a headline in Philadelphia newspapers sometime in the 1770s. Charles Willson Peale was one of Philadelphia’s leading artists at this time, and family legend says he put Argos in the family portrait because the dog scared off a thief intent on stealing the family silver.
We’ll leave Argos on guard and come back to this painting in a bit, but first a little about the amazing man who painted it.
Charles Willson Peale, 1741-1827, had many interests and talents. He began as a saddlemaker,
but exchanged a saddle for three art lessons, and was hooked. After studying for two years in London with Benjamin West, Peale returned to America as a portrait painter. His career spanned the American Revolution and the formation of the United States.
Peale fought in the Revolution and knew most of the leading men of the early republic. He painted many of those men, including the first seven presidents, Benjamin Franklin, Meriweather Lewis, and William Clark.
Peale painted George Washington a number of times. The first was when Washington was still a Virginia militia colonel fighting with the British army during the French and Indian War. An anecdote from their continuing friendship shows Peale’s artistic skills as well as the same sense of humor that put Argos in a family portrait.
Working in the trompe l’oeil (French for “deceive the eye”) manner, Peale painted two of his sons as if they were on a stair. It was so lifelike that when it was exhibited in an unused doorway with a real step below it, George Washington is said to have nodded to the boys as he passed.
In 1782 Peale opened a portrait gallery in Philadelphia, but being curious about nature, he also accepted specimens of birds and other creatures. Lewis and Clark sent him specimens from their western expedition. When Peale became interested in something, he went at it with great enthusiasm. Soon the thousands of bird, animal, and mineral specimens outgrew their first home and had to move to the second floor of Independence Hall.
Always creative, Peale was one of the first to pose animals and birds together in habitat groups, with appropriately painted backdrops. John James Audubon would adopt this method. In 1822 Peale painted a picture of himself pulling back a curtain to reveal one of the rooms of the museum. It is called The Artist in His Museum.
Part of what you see behind the curtain is the reconstructed skeleton of a mastodon. In 1801 bones were discovered on a farm in New York, and Peale rushed there to buy the rights to dig them up. He painted a dramatic picture of that experience, called Exhuming the Mastodon.
Peale also worked to establish American schools for the arts, one eventually becoming the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
The Peale Family Painting
Portrait painting was the most profitable form of art in the colonies. The cost of portraits depended on several things. Three-quarter or full-length portraits cost more, as did details, such as items related to work and interests. Some artists even charged more to put in hands!
So The Peale Family portrait stands out as something new. It’s full of almost-full-length people, hands, and details of work and home! It even has a still life. It’s a perfect advertisement for Peale’s talents!
Find all the hands and connect them to the proper people!
Find all the details of work and home life.
What details make up the still life?
Peale brought this informal style, called a conversation group, back from London. It is an apt name, because everyone is connected by hands or glances, and you can easily imagine them conversing as they sit for the artist.
There are two groups in this portrait of the extended Peale family. On the left, Charles is giving a drawing lesson to one of his brothers. Behind Charles is another brother, James, and a sister.
In the right-hand group are Charles’ mother (the grandmother) and one of Charles’ daughters.
Can you find all the clues that tell you they are the ones being drawn?
Behind them is another sister and standing farther back is the prim and proper family nurse.
In the middle, connecting the two groups, is Charles’ first wife, who is holding another of their daughters.
Movement in the painting is created by all those gazes. Find the three looking directly at the viewer. They invite us to be part of the family scene and form a descending diagonal left to right across the middle of the painting, leading us to the grandmother and the nurse.
The gazes of these two women lead us to the focal point of the painting—the art lesson. When you get there, it’s clear from Charles’ smile and gesture, that he is the teacher. Of course, his gesture and his brother’s gaze lead you back to the mother. Round and round, just like a conversation!
Okay—what color has Peale used to help you focus on the group seated at the table? Of course!! It is red!!
In this case he has used burgundy, reddish brown, and pink, and spread them around the table. Burgundy is the most eye-catching. Find all of these, (don’t miss the little shoes peeping out beneath the baby’s dress) and notice how they lead you across the front of the painting and up to the grandmother’s face.
Peale has also heightened the attention we give to the reds by contrasting them with the green tablecloth. Opposites on the color wheel, such as red and green are called complementary colors. Orange and blue are complementary, as are yellow and violet.)
Have you noticed the classical busts on the shelf? Do you see the pyramid arrangement of each group and of the overall grouping? Have you wondered why the colors are muted?
This was a time in art called Neoclassicism, when artists and architects looked back to the severe, symmetrical style of the ancient Greeks and Romans. This was partly a reaction to the increasing cotton-candy frothiness of the Rococo period. But also because of the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the 1730s that showed well-preserved ancient art.
Neoclassic artists believed art should appeal to the intellect not the emotions. Careful drawing was more important than color, pyramid arrangements gave stability, and backgrounds should be plain or have classical touches, such as columns, arches, urns, marble busts, and velvet draperies. These things made people look grand and important.
Architects also joined the craze and produced copies of Greek and Roman buildings everywhere. Thomas Jefferson remodeled his home, Monticello, in the style, and buildings in Washington D.C. would fit right into the forums of ancient Rome and Greece. The Founding Fathers thought the style was appropriate for the new American nation.
What about Argos? Although he’s out of the line of all the gazes, he’s directly below the still life on the table. So when your gaze pauses now and then to look at the bright yellow and red apples, you notice him outlined by the green table cloth. There are a couple things pointing to him, too. What are they
The Spiritual Lesson
You’d think that with all his interests and talents, Peale would have no time for a family, but he was devoted to his family and had 17 children! (He had a long life and outlived three wives) In his enthusiasm for art and science, he named his children after great artists and scientists.
Several of his children went on to become well-known artists. Raphaelle was a painter of still lifes, and Rembrandt painted portraits. As shown in the family portrait, Charles’ brother James also became an artist, and three of James’ daughters did, too.
Two of Charles’ sons went on to careers as naturalists. Rubens became director of the Philadelphia museum and later opened a similar museum in New York. Titian was a member of many important scientific expeditions and specialized in studying and painting butterflies. For over a hundred years his paintings could be seen only in the Rare Book Collection of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. But this year they were published as The Butterflies of North America: Titian Peale’s Lost Manuscript.
What an amazing legacy! By the example of his activities and hard work, and by the direct teaching we see in this family portrait, Charles Willson Peale passed on a great treasure of artistic and scientific interests and abilities to his children and extended family.
How much more important are our example and teaching that help our children find the treasures of God’s wisdom.
The Bible says it is within the family that children learn the treasures of wisdom. It admonishes parents to,
“… lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul…. You shall teach them to
your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are
walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. Deuteronomy 11:18-19
Other verses show that grandparents are to be teachers, too.
One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts. Psalm 145:4
In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul says,
“I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in
your mother Eunice and I am persuaded now lives in you also.
And what a treasure is God’s wisdom. Proverbs 8 compares it and its fruit in a person’s life, (prudence, knowledge, discretion, hatred of evil, humility, sound judgement, insight, strength, justice, honor, righteousness) to gold and silver.
Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold,
for wisdom is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with her. Proverbs 8:10-11
[the]…fruit [of this wisdom] is better than gold, even fine gold,
and my yield than choice silver. Proverbs 8:19
Most importantly we need to teach our children and grandchildren the ultimate source of this treasure of God’s wisdom.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. Proverbs 9:10
The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that it is through faith in Christ that we receive the fulfillment of God’s wisdom. In Colossians 2:2-3 Paul says,
“For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you…, that [your] hearts
may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of
understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all
the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
My prayer is that each of us will, with the Lord’s help, work even harder and more enthusiastically than Charles Willson Peale did for his family, to help our children and grandchildren grow into men and women with the desire and abilities to serve and glorify God!
This post is dedicated especially to our children and grandchildren, because although they know how much we love our dogs, and often (well..maybe mostly!) include them in family portraits, we love them much, much more and pray for them daily.
And [we] “…have no greater joy than to hear that [our] children are walking in the truth.” 3 John 4
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The images in this blog are used for educational purposes only