There’s quite a story behind the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s still life masterwork, Venus Rising From the Sea—A Deception (ca. 1822), by Raphaelle Peale, which is now on view in the exhibit, “Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Image courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)
Raphaelle Peale’s famous still life embeds a dialogue with his artist father.
One of the gems of the Nelson-Atkins’ American painting collection is Raphaelle Peale’s Venus Rising from the Sea—A Deception. Often acknowledged as the artist’s most important work, it was a natural choice for inclusion in the exhibit, “Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life,” now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Venus Rising, painted circa 1822, is a superb example of trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) painting. A piece of white linen, pinned to cloth tape, has been so realistically rendered that the viewer is tempted to peek beneath it to see exactly what has been obscured.
What can be readily discerned is this: a foot beneath the bottom edge of the fabric and a woman’s arm above its folded top, her hand pulling her long hair upwards. This fragmented body is actually a partial copy of the 1772 painting, The Birth of Venus by the Irish artist, James Barry. The Barry image was widely disseminated when it was reproduced in engraved form, which contributed to its enormous popularity.
Venus Rising served to re-establish the reputation of Raphaelle Peale after Edith Halpert, a legendary dealer in New York, discovered it in 1930. She exhibited it in 1931 at her Downtown Gallery with the title After the Bath. It was compared to contemporary Surrealist works and hailed as a precursor to American and European modernism. The Nelson-Atkins acquired it in 1934.
Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825) was the eldest son of the painter Charles Willson Peale to survive to adulthood. Early on, he assisted his father in his studio where he both worked and learned to be an artist. His father, a soldier, scientist, inventor, naturalist and museum founder as well as an artist, was best known for his portraits of George Washington, other prominent contemporaries and paintings of historical subjects.
When the elder Peale retired from portrait painting, he referred his commissions to Raphaelle and his brother Rembrandt. Unlike Rembrandt, Raphaelle found it difficult to flatter his sitters and after 1810, began to focus more on painting still lifes. Raphaelle’s precarious health also reinforced his preference for inanimate objects over living, breathing and possibly hard-to-satisfy clients. He experienced sporadic and severe attacks affecting his hands and stomach to the point that he was unable to paint at all. His irregular work schedule coupled with the fact that still-life subjects commanded lesser prices than portraits or history painting meant that his financial state was often precarious.
In the early 19th century, still life painting was not considered a serious artistic endeavor. This perception was a firm belief of the Peale family patriarch, Charles Willson Peale. His opinion and disapproval created a difficult relationship with Raphaelle. In 1817, he painted a portrait of his son. Holding a brush and his palette, the younger Peale is depicted as a serious artist, seated in front of a framed still life of fruit. The elder Peale presented the portrait to Raphaelle as a gift, with the subtle message that he could be much more financially successful if he would only devote his time to painting portraits.
In 1967, Venus Rising was included in a Peale Family exhibition in Detroit, and Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of his son Raphaelle hung nearby. Organizers of the exhibition noticed certain similarities between the two. In the upper right quadrant of Venus Rising, one could perceive a ghostly rectangular shape, which corresponded to the framed still life (albeit of a single fruit), in the background of the Peale portrait. Other compositional parallels such as the paintbrushes and the back of the chair can be discerned in the lower left corner as well. These shadowy details are known as pentimenti, the literal translation being “repentance”, they are the evidence of changes that the artist has made. As paint ages and becomes more transparent, the underpainting can become more visible. What had been painted over is no longer completely obscured. Raphaelle had painted a partial copy of the portrait by his father beneath the existing composition.
In 2008, Lauren Lessing and Mary Schafer wrote a detailed article about the comprehensive examination and exhaustive research on Venus Rising. Numerous theories about Raphaelle’s intentions are discussed: to trick his father into thinking the white cloth was indeed fabric (with the futile hope that his father might gain appreciation for Raphaelle’s talents); to gently mock the elder Peale’s prudishness toward public exhibition of paintings of nudes; or, to literally and figuratively obliterate the portrait by his father with his own tour de force.
Raphaelle had second thoughts about possibly antagonizing his father and painted over the elements he had copied. But by whitewashing the original composition, he was able to surreptitiously express his conflicted feelings toward his father and his belief in the superiority of still life painting. He may have also concluded that the intra-family messages would not be as commercially viable as Venus Rising.
Raphaelle Peale has more works than any of the other hundred or so artists in the Philadelphia Museum’s survey of still life painting. His career struggles and the disdain towards still life painting seem very far away as 21st-century viewers behold the beauty and mystery of the objects he painted.
“Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life,” continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Jan.10. For more information, 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.