Margaret Fuller, Critic: Writings from the New-York Tribune, 1844-1846

By Judith Mattson Bean; Joel Myerson | Go to book overview

Peale's Court of Death

This picture, famous in the annals of American art, may now be seen to very good advantage at the Society Library Rooms, either in the brighter hours of the day or by gas-light.

Much stress is laid, in the advertisements, upon the moral purpose or influence of the picture.1—With regard to this we must observe that moral influence is not the legitimate object of works of art. It may naturally flow from them in so far as beauty is identical with health and virtue, but the object of the Fine Arts is simply to express thoughts in forms more perfect than the common course of nature furnishes. As all objects in a high way beautiful and perfect are intrinsically pure and noble, the mind of him who contemplates them is by that means elevated and expanded, but it is not their province directly to preach of vice or virtue—sin and its retributions. Where religion has afforded the best of all subjects, it has been because it presented types of what is universal. The Madonna represents a high and grand form of maternal tenderness, the sight of which may teach innumerable lessons, but it must be incidentally. Christ reproving Peter affords a subject for moral instruction, but when the true Artist takes hold of it, all petty details and inferences are subordinated to, or lost in, the sense of a being so raised above the region of doubt, speculation, and special precept by a thorough intelligence of the divine will that He and the Father are one.

We have dwelt for a moment upon this, because the method of advertising Mr. Peale's picture seems as if a work of Art needed some pretext or object beyond its natural one of representing what is most excellent in thought, most clear in imagination, and by so doing to confirm impressions already common

____________________
1
According to one advertisement, “the picture is designed to illustrate the propensities of man to good and evil, and thence to teach the necessity of a constant preparation to meet his uncertain, but inevitable end” (New-York Daily Tribune, 18 December 1845, p. 3).

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