Monday, November 5, 2012
The sad life of American artist Raphaelle Peale 1774-1825
Browsing through a 40-year-old catalogue 19th-Century America: Paintings and Sculpture, I happened upon this painting, which is so unlike the rest of Raphaelle Peale's work. It is sometimes called Venus Rising from the Sea - A Deception.
This catalogue, published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title at the Met, gives a different version of the painting's creation & a different name, After the Bath. The intriguing caption reads: "By 1823 Raphealle Peale had become an alcoholic and was painting solely to pay his bills--reducing his prices, even raffling off man of his still lifes. After the Bath, which shows the lighter, fun-loving side of his nature, was done at the end of his difficult life. It was painted by Raphaelle apparently to shock & fool his hot-tempered wife, Patty, who nagged him day & night. This illusion of a naked woman behind a sheet was supposedly so successful that Patty tried to pull the sheet away and instead--much to her husband's amusement--found herself scratching the canvas. Although the work is best known for its witty subject, the superb treatment of light on the creased white linen sheet marks it as a masterpiece among American still-life compositions."
Raphaelle Peale & Martha (Patty) McGlathery, his red-haired bride, met, when he was 20 in 1794. The couple were neighbors in Philadelphia, where Raphaelle's parents had a large home on the corner of Third & Lombard Sts.; Matthew McGlathery, his wife, also named Martha, & their daughter lived in a modest row home around the corner at 25 George St.
The Peale & McGlathery families were from different spheres in Philadelphia society. Charles Willson Peale (American artist, 1741-1827) outlived 3 wives, fathered 16 children, & founded an artistic dynasty lasting nearly a century. Peale created the country's first museum of natural history & made the city's first use of gas to illuminate it. He received the first patent from the U.S. Patent Office, was a master of painting in oils, watercolor & miniatures. The bride's father Matthew McGlathery was a builder & carpenter who helped construct Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia.
Raphaelle was the oldest child of Charles Willson & Rachel Peale. Both father & son had a talent for art, music & poetry, plus a penchant for mechanical inventions & a love of entertainment. But Raphaelle was plagued by mood swings exascerbated by excessive drinking. At age 12, he had begun assisting his father in the museum, located initially in their home. An expanding number of exhibits prompted Peale to move both his family & collection to the recently completed Philosophical Hall, on south 5th St. Later the museum required even larger quarters, the "Long Room" on the 2nd floor of Independence Hall. To obtain exotic specimens of birds & animals, 18 year old Raphaelle was sent on a collecting expedition to South America.
In 1794, Charles Willson Peale decided to devote himself completely to the prospering museum, & relinquished portrait painting to Raphaelle & Rembrandt, a younger brother. That same year Raphaelle painted Patty's portrait & determined to marry her. Reportedly Charles Willson opposed the match, but father & son remained close. The following year, the youthful artist made his professional debut at a major 1795 exhibition; where he showed 13 portraits & still lifes, at which he was particularly adept.
Most of that year, he & Rembrandt devoted to copying 60 of their father's best known portraits for exhibition in Charleston & Savannah. The Peale brothers did obtain portrait commissions for themselves. They sailed back to Philadelphia not long before Raphaelle's wedding at the Third Presbyterian Church at Fourth & Pine Sts on May 25, 1797. Home with his new bride for hardly 3 years, Raphaelle taught himself taxidermy by mounting specimens for the museum. His large portraits never sold well. Still lifes, at which he excelled, were not in vogue. But miniatures were. Peale mastered the technique of applying watercolors to thin slices of ivory. Early in 1800, he was in Baltimore, where he advertised that in a few months he already had painted 72 miniatures as keepsakes.
Peale's best remembered work - "After the Bath" - dating from 3 years before his death & was intended as a joke on Patty. Shocked that her husband would paint a nude, she actually tried to unpin the linen napkin shielding the model's modesty. Imagine Patty's surprise, when she discovered there was no nude. Pins & napkin were oil paint on canvas.
During his last 2 decades, Raphaelle journeyed through the South's eastern states seeking commissions, as his increasingly heavy drinking led to illness & loss of income. Peale's only genuine financial success was with the physiognotrace, a recently invented device for tracing small silhouette profiles on paper. Wherever he traveled - Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina & Georgia - people flocked to have their profiles made. In less than a year, he reportedly cut an incredible 86,430 silhouettes &, more importantly, earned his only real wealth. But soon the fad died. Later trips were failures.
Charles Willson Peale wrote of family events. (July, 1803) "...Patty is up & bravely, would you guess it, in half an hour — no less than twins. Mrs. McGlathery is much with her; you need not fear that anything will be wanting at home..." Sadly, the twins died. By month's end, Raphaelle was home for the baptism of 3 children born earlier. Four children were born in later years.
On the prospects of home ownership, the elder Peale wrote (September 1804): "...You must know how desirable it is to have a place to call your own, & live free of rent, & now is your time when your children are young & least expensive... The house will scarcely be ready to go into before the middle of next month. I tell Patty, the longer she can keep out of it, the better; her feelings must determine whether she can wait for the completion of it..."
Charles Willson Peale's letters also glimpse the couple's downward spiral. In February, 1806, he wrote: "...I haste to let you know that I will not let Patty suffer for want of money while I have it in my power to supply her. I don't know what she wrote, or even wish to be informed; perhaps she is sorry for it, as when I called there, she said she would give anything to recall it... You must not suppose I want any indemnification for what I am able to do for your family . . I wish to be serviceable to my children as far as I can do it..."
A year later, the elder Peale recounted Patty's heartache resulting from her husband's travels & drinking. "...She complained it is hard to live separated. I justified it from the necessity of the case, & I also gave her some hints how to make home more agreeable to induce those we are connected with to stay with each other. She said we are very happy when he don't drink, & yet she said you could not do without it, for if you passed one day, a tremour came on you & you was miserable until you had it . . My answer is that it was wrong for anyone to drink anything but water..."
Crippled at times by drink & gout, Raphaelle continued traveling until 1824, the year before his death. Too ill to leave home, he turned to poetry, writing "lovesick poems - little couplets" for a baker to place in cakes. On March 5, having given the baker his latest efforts, Raphaelle complained of an attack of gout in the stomach. A hot toddy, intended to help, caused him to collapse & die. Raphaelle is buried in St. Peter's churchyard, just a few steps from the grave of his father & next to Patty, the house carpenter's daughter, who died in 1852.
Most information for this posting from an educational article by Carl G. Karsch at the website of Carpenter's Hall.