Book Reviews -- in Pursuit of Fame: Rembrandt Peale, 1778-1860 by Lillian B. Miller

Article excerpt

Most people who have more than a passing knowledge of nineteenth-century American painting are aware of many of the substantial number of paintings Rembrandt Peale produced in a career extending over 60 years. Given our familiarity with his Patriae Pater, the fame of several of his hundreds of portraits, and the notoriety of such paintings as The Court of Death and The Roman Daughter, it is quite surprising to learn that this monograph is also the first comprehensive study of his life and work. It is also important to note that, while the book was written in concert with an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, it can and does stand on its own merits.

One of the biggest challenges was to explore the complex relationship between the work of Rembandt and both the larger and better known corpus of paintings by his widely respected and more catholic father, Charles Willson Peale, and his complex interactions with several of his artist brothers. At the same time, a case has to be made for the worthiness of Rembrandt as a major figure in his own right. Given the many years of work as a cultural historian on the Peale project at The National Portrait Gallery, and her previously published volumes of The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, there was certainly no one similarly equipped to initiate this monograph. Recognizing the need for a more technical and stylistic examination of the paintings, Carol E. Hevner was brought into the project and wrote a separate essay, "The Paintings of Rembrandt Peale: Character and Conventions." The need for both authors to reference many of the same works makes for repetitious and tedious reading and is, indeed, the major weakness of the book.

In spite of that problem, it is most worthwhile and a satisfying project. We are exposed to a man without the far reaching intellectual interests (or the social skills) of his father, a painter of more narrow and focused concerns, yet, ultimately, a better and more professional artist than the elder Peale had ever been. Charles had grounded himself in Enlightenment thought and used his art as one of the many tools of understanding and uplifting the world, but Rembrandt struggled to bring contemporary artistic theory and the most advanced European taste to the American public. Subjects like The Roman Daughter and the Washington portraits were painted, as Miller put it: "a major justification for art lay in its capacity to present moral behavior, the noble and ideal, in a convincing pictorial composition." Unfortunately, no matter how well Rembrandt fulfilled his more specialized task, his was the more difficult one in nineteenth-century America: his constant attempts to raise money through specialized exhibitions and the itinerancy that continued a long time beyond the necessary probationary period for a young artist attest to his inability to convince the public of the importance of art in their lives. What must have been equally frustrating for Rembrandt--throughout his life--was the fact that his proposals for major projects, both public and private--were either ignored or rejected by the political and civic leaders he hoped might understand and support the vision he hoped to share with the public. …