Editor's note: The following article was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on June 5, 2007. According to the National Portrait Gallery,Washington, DC, the article was written by the author while employed by the Gallery and is in the pubic domain. The National Portrait Gallery is a facility of the United States Government.


In Pursuit of Fame: Rembrandt Peale, 1778 - 1860

by Lillian Miller


During the early years of the American Republic, spokesmen for the development of a national culture looked to the country's painters for proof that the country was capable of encouraging genius. "With no public, and but little private, patronage," wrote an essayist in the Analectic Magazine in 1815, the fact that "the nation should have produced a continual and uninterrupted succession of painters of great merit" could only be accounted for by some organic cause or "natural propensity of genius."[1] With no self-consciousness, Rembrandt Peale included himself in the Analectic's list, placing himself alongside Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, and his own father, Charles Willson Peale. Recognizing the historical role of the artist and accepting that role in the development of a national culture, Rembrandt sought Old Master status and concentrated his energies on achieving artistic excellence and fame in fulfillment of his self-defined mission.

Like many others in his post-revolutionary generation, born during a time of national crisis but lacking opportunity to emulate the heroic exploits of his elders, Rembrandt sought heroic achievement -- but in art rather than in military or governmental service. His success as an artist would prove, he believed, the compatibility of art and republicanism, and consequently the worth of the nation as a civilization.

Rembrandt Peale's efforts to achieve Old Master status in a New World, where there was no long history or tradition of art, are examined in the first major exhibition devoted solely to his work, presented at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., from November 6, 1992, through February 7, 1993. Containing seventy-five major paintings from an oeuvre of more than 1,200, together with works on paper, manuscript letters and publications, and other memorabilia, the exhibition follows Rembrandt Peale's aristic development from his early years when he was working under the influence of his father, the colonial artist Charles Willson Peale, through his travels to London, Paris, and the art centers of Italy. In Pursuit of Fame: Rembrandt Peale, 1778-1860 was organized by Lillian B. Miller, editor of the Peale Family Papers and historian of American Culture at the National Portrait Gallery, and Carol E. Hevner, research consultant for the Rembrandt Peale catalog raisonné project at the gallery.

Rembrandt Peale produced his first painting in 1791 at the age of thirteen -- a Self-Portrait which reflects the Anglo-American painting tradition that characterizes his father's art. Growing up in a house-hold that centered around his father's painting studio, the young boy was able to observe his father at work and, at a young age, learned how to prepare a canvas and mix pigments. From his father, he absorbed eighteenth-century ideas about the social significance of portraiture and its function in society as a conveyor of images of nobility and morality. He was also influenced by the elder Peale's emphasis on good drawing, rational composition, and the necessity for "likeness". With this self-portrait, Rembrandt asserted his vocation as an artist by signing and dating it.

At age seventeen, Rembrandt began his travels as an itinerant artist, journeying to Charleston, Savannah, Baltimore, and Maryland's eastern shore while taking portraits and improving his skills. His portraits continued to resemble his father's work, departing from it primarily in expressive quality: his father was more apt to idealize his sitters and endow them with a pleasant expression, whereas Rembrandt was tied to visual truth. His direct and unidealized characterization is apparent in his 1795 portrait of George Washington, the last to be painted from life of the first President.


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