Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The First Family of American Culture

Raphaelle Peale, Painter

To put it plainly, the Peale family of Philadelphia is very appealing. When I first learned that the Patriarch Charles Willson, the founding promoter PAFA, hesitated not to stoop to conquer his fellow compatriots culturally, I was whelmed. His first museum stacked curiosities (like recently exhumed mastodon bones) near the front door to tease artistically uninterested Philadelphians into his esthetic lair--the better to see his own paintings, hanging grandly in the rear of his all-purpose museum.

This tactic seemed perfectly to embody the vision of another optimistic Early American, John Adams. When he was our ambassador to France in the 1780s, he wrote to Abigail back in Boston about how he was dealing with the embarrassing discrepancies between Beantown culture and artistic life in the City of Light. Was he discouraged that Paris made Boston look like a hick town by comparison?

Our generation, he reasoned to his equally thoughtful wife, must lay a solid political foundation so that their sons could develop the country economically, making it possible for culture to flower in the third generation. A trice over-optimistic, perhaps. But his grandson did found the Erie Railroad and his son, Henry Adams, wrote some solid books in the process of becoming the country's first archetypically alienated intellectual.

But Peales were made of sterner stuffings. To deal with the systematic Expectations Gap in the United States between our Highest Aspirations and our all too frequent Lowest Impulses, Charles Willson took out an onomastic insurance policy on America's cultural future. He named sons Raphaelle, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Titian. (Mysteriously, a plain James crept into this lineup of heavy hitters!) But the real marvel is how highly his sons lived up to their toney monickers, given the stoney soil that was their fate in the pre-NEA, oh-if-only-had-a-patron early 18th century America.

And of these sons, my favorite is Raphaelle, whose work we are privileged to savour at PAFA Feb. 17 through April 16. When I took a sneak peek at the show when it premiered at the National Gallery (I had trekked to D.C. to review the "serious" show on the Japanese daimyo), I was astonished by the gap between my middling expectations of his work and the stunning oeuvre on display.

For a start, the still life old chestnuts were thrillingly alive. I had shot a look at one here, made a mental note of another illustration in an art history book, and too precipitously concluded that he was a johnny-one-note surprisingly good for such mediocre times. Boy, was I ever wrong. He is a minor master in the genre, exploring mutability and vanitas with brilliant panache. He was no fruit and veggie "fool the eye" boy. He's a visual metaphysician, commenting on the discrete and multifarious ways different fleshes die, rot, and turn to seed, promising yet another cycle of birth-decay-death. And he's witty visually.

You can almost see the hand that just set down that half-consumed glass of wine. In short, look at this angel of a painter with open eyes and you will be absolutely delighted. Charles, First Father of American Painting, you can be mightily pleased with how the work of the First Son is tantalizing Philadelphians going on two centuries later. You don't have to tease us into the store at Broad and Cherry. Raphaelle is singing a divine chorus for our now awakened ears.

Hazard started asking for whom the Peales tolled in graduate school in the early 1950's. Oliver Larkin's Art & Life in America was hid vade mecum getting prepped for a Ph.D prelim in American Art and Architecture. With apologies to Will Rogers, Hazard has never seen a Peale he didn't like.

Reprinted from Art Matters, February 1989

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