RUBENS PEALE AND HIS GERANIUM
‘Rubens Peale With A Geranium’ by Rembrandt Peale, 1802
I love discovering new great paintings that I’d never come across before. Studying art history at university we mostly only covered artists I’d heard of already, with a few exceptions (neglected female artists, sentimental Victorian genre painters, etc). But there were some wonderfully accomplished and/or interesting artists who never made it into the canon of great painters and became well know. Rembrandt Peale was an accomplished and prolific American painter – mainly of portraits – whose subjects included George Washington whom he painted when he was only seventeen years of age. Later he also painted Thomas Jefferson. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, paid $4.07 million way back in 1985 for Rubens Peale With A Geranium, his study of his seventeen year old brother Rubens, which set a record at the time.
This painting struck me as a lovely portrait, well painted but also very unusual. I think it’s that it really is quite transgressive, in that it breaks all the rules for male portraiture of the period. Women, and almost never men, were the ones who were pictured with flowers. In the case of women the comparison between the pretty and delicate flowers and the pretty and delicate women, is a pretty obvious inference. The explanation here lies in the Peale family’s interests. The brothers were born to a Charles Willson Peale in Pennsylvania, an artist with great interest in natural history, who named nearly all of his seventeen children after famous artists and scientists.Rubens also had brothers named Raphaelle Peale and Titian Peale, and his sisters included an Angelica Kauffman Peale and a Sophonisba Peale (spot the female artists….).
Rembrandt Peale (here in a self-portrait which is itself unusual) who painted his brother’s portrait when he was 23, did indeed become a professional artist. But Rubens, named after the baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, of course, did make a foray into painting before becoming predominantly a museum director (he and Rembrandt eventually ran the Peale Museum, in Baltimore which included both art and natural history). So Rubens had an early interest in Botany, and this portrait might be considered a ‘double’ portrait because the Geranium that is featured is reputed to be the first such specimen grown in America. No wonder he is clasping it rather lovingly and that the plant is depicted in such accurate detail. It’s a commemoration of his family’s horticultural triumph – and a portrait of his brother’s particular interest.
The portrait is unusual in another respect however, because unlike most male portraiture, Rubens looks demurely downwards, just as a woman might be depicted. Male subjects almost always meet one’s gaze in a portrait. If they look away anywhere, it is likely to be upwards and off into the lofty distance – or they might look down masterfully at a pet dog, or insightfully towards a globe, or something like that. I can hardly think of another male portrait where the subject is looking downwards, as if in a sort of a reverie. One academic article raised the similarity between the painting and a painting called Smell by David Teniers the Younger from 1640, but I don’t find the likeness between the two to be all that great and there is no evidence that Peale had ever seen this painting.
Maybe the answer lies in the two pairs of spectacles in the picture – one on Rubens’ face and the other in his hand. Rubens had weak eyesight, something that probably put paid to his career as an artist. Did this make Rubens a shy character, who didn’t meet a gaze because he simply couldn’t see well enough? It’s such an individualistic portrait, one that maybe could only have been painted by a family member who knew him well. The spectacles have been the subject of some speculation, as it’s unusual (though not unheard of) for anyone to be wearing them in a portrait. I note though that Rembrandt has included his own glasses in his self portrait. Apparently Charles Willson Peale experimented with making spectacles, as well as supplying a number of his friends and acquaintances with false teeth. I imagine the inclusion of two pairs of spectacles therefore is intended to reference another area of family expertise. Peale senior was a true Renaissance man, with interests including carpentry, dentistry, optometry, shoemaking, and taxidermy.
Finally on the subject of the Peale family, below is Charles Willson Peale’s most famous work – Raphaelle and Titian Peale in a Trompe l’oeil (1795). Charles Peale wasn’t as talented an artist as his son Rubens (who trained for a time in Paris), but this painting is lovely and informal and so unusual in it’s composition. You can see more of Charles Peale’s work here, including a rather disturbing portrait of his second wife weeping over their daughter who’d died of Smallpox, and more cheerfully, a very proud trompe l’oeil self portrait showing him lifting a curtain to reveal his own museum. Click here for more information on Rembrandt Peale. Rather wonderfully, Rembrandt continued the family tradition of artist names, calling his own son Michael Angelo Peale who also became an artist (but had rather a name to live up to!)