The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

2.Rembrandt Peale's Dream and Experience of Italy

CAROL E. HEVNER

In 1828, Rembrandt Peale ( 1778-1860) wrote to his lawyer, Charles Mayer, that he might have done well enough staying in Boston where he had been painting for the past year and a half but, he explained,

no Portrait Business is very desireable in America . . . and my love of my Art is too ardent to suffer me to remain satisfied without seeing Rome and Florence . . . Italy, the heaven of Painters. I cannot worship the god of this country . . . money. . . . I have hitherto labored unceasingly, and I have nearly fulfilled all my duties to my children. . . . I have merited some positive enjoyment, of my eyesight at least, since I have subdued and moderated every passion and propensity of mere mortality. . . . I must not become an old man and die without seeing Italy, which I have made three attempts to reach. . . . go I must and now, before I can again get engaged in any business that can detain me. 1

Peale further noted that although this trip was intended to improve his "taste and judgment," his "chief duty" was to be the education of his son. 2 Financing the trip was a challenge, for he had amassed sizable debts since 1814 when he had undertaken the building of a museum in Baltimore. Aggravating this situation was the large amount of time and money he had invested in a plan to bring illuminating gas to the city, a project that ultimately left him short of cash, embroiled in litigation, and emotionally distraught. 3 In an attempt to rid himself of some of these distracting complications, Rembrandt sold the Baltimore Museum to his younger brother Rubens in 1822 and dedicated himself single-mindedly to his art. During this time he established a solid portrait practice, excelled at lithography, and executed both his heroic portrait of George Washington, the Patriae Pater ( 1824, Collection of the U. S. Capitol) and his large equestrian, Washington at Yorktown ( 1824, Corcoran Gallery of Art). 4 The latter, he hoped, would take its place in the Rotunda of the Capitol. These were years of hard and ambitious work, and by 1828 Rembrandt Peale was ready for both the release that a sojourn in Italy could provide and the sophisticated artistic lessons that he hoped would enhance his career (Plate 5). 5

On January 6, 1829, Rembrandt and his son Angelo arrived in Naples. Peale's travel journal, published on his return as Notes on Italy, reveals that they found much of interest in the museums of painting and sculpture and the antiquities of Pompeii. 6 It should be noted, however, that Italian art was not new to Rembrandt. He had found inspiration in the art of Italy for years. As a boy he reveled in a collection of Italian paintings on loan to his father's museum from the Philadelphia merchant John Swanwick.

As soon as I was released from school, I rushed to the gallery, devouring with my whole and earnest attention, the wonders of the Beautiful Art. . . . I had then never heard or read of Venetian coloring, but a group of females, by a Venetian painter, was spontaneously my daily admiration and wonder, even before I had touched a brush, as it has since been my ambition to emulate. 7

While the value of studying Italian works of art was reinforced for Peale by his brief acquaintance with Benjamin West in 1802-1803, his plans to travel beyond London into Italy proved financially impossible at that time. 8 He returned to America, and Italy was still only a dream when he painted a portrait such as that of diplomat William Short in 1806, with its depiction of the Temple of Zeus at Paestum taken from Piranesi's engraved views (Plate 6). Peale's knowledge of Italian art was profoundly enhanced during his two periods of study in Paris in 1808 and 1809-1810.

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