Thursday, February 14, 2019

Valentine's Day - 18C American Couple

1795 Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) Angelica Peale and her husband Alexander Robinson.

Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, tells us that in 1795, the artist Charles Willson Peale traveled from Philadelphia with his wife Betsey and his nine-year-old daughter Sophonisba to visit his elder daughter Angelica at her home in Baltimore. ..the purpose of the trip was to execute a double portrait of Angelica and her husband, Alexander Robinson, as they awaited the birth of their first child. Seemingly a happy occasion, the visit was spoiled by what Peale called Alexander’s “bad grace” during the sitting. Robinson, a wealthy immigrant from Ireland, is described as haughty, proud, and disdainful of the Peales’ profession; he reportedly dismissed Peale as a “showman.” [1]

Presumably, Angelica asked her father to make the trip...because she feared she might not survive childbirth. Happily, she did survive and gave birth to Alexander, Jr., while her father was still there to welcome his new grandson. Life for Angelica would not always be so fortunate, however; although she lived well into her seventies, she outlived six of her eight children. A later painting, Mother Caressing her Convalescent Daughter, 1818, reveals the toll that age and grief had taken.

In Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Robinson, however, she radiates youth and health. Her long hair, adorned by luminescent pearls, tumbles down her back. Her skin glows, her cheeks just slightly pink. She is dressed in a pale silvery gown, with a soft lace collar draped elegantly around her neck. Her belly swells slightly, hinting at her pregnancy. Alexander, in contrast, is dressed in a stiff and sober black jacket over a high-necked white shirt and cravat. His florid complexion is in stark contrast to his wife’s alabaster skin. His stiff, wooden bearing is perhaps a reflection of Peale’s irritation at his son-in-law’s arrogant manner.

Peale produced this painting during a period of cultural shift in attitudes towards marriage. In general, society was moving from a more patriarchal marriage model, in which a wife deferred to the authority of her husband, to a companionate marriage model of equal partners. His acquaintance, Pennsylvania native Benjamin Franklin, demonstrated this change in his essay Reflections on Courtship and Marriage, in which he emphasized the nature of “matrimony as a voluntary and mutual contract.” This shift had several effects on painting in general. First, the pendant portrait, in which a wife and husband are painted in two separate works, allowing the artist to demonstrate clearly through attributes and settings their separate and appropriate spheres, was becoming less and less common. Replacing it was the double portrait, in which a wife and husband were united in one space. Their physical closeness represented their emotional intimacy. [2]

Several elements of Peale’s double portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson reflect this shift. First, they are seated close together, on the same plane, with their heads at the same level. Peale shows Alexander’s head inclined slightly toward his wife, a gesture that demonstrates his solicitous concern for her wellbeing. He also highlights their tenderly clasped hands by positioning them in front of Alexander’s black coat.

Within the unified space, however, Peale subtly divides the composition into feminine and masculine spheres, a device both he and other portraitists used for double portraits. The artist calls attention to Angelica’s affinity with nature, seen as a more feminine environment. Her blue-green cloak links her to the landscape and darkening sky in the distance, while her soft curls blend into the fuzzy trees behind her. Alexander, in contrast, is placed before a pillar and billowing drapery, artistic conventions that both ennoble him and connect him to culture, which was considered the domain of men.

The painting thus reflects many of the recent shifts in portraiture—a change from pendant to double, with a new emphasis on emotional closeness while still maintaining a suggestion of separate spheres. In one regard, however, this is a singularly distinct painting: Angelica looks directly at the viewer. In double portraits of married couples in the eighteenth century, it is almost always the man who meets the viewer’s gaze, indicating masculine assertiveness and directness. In Peale’s own work, the preponderance of the double portraits show either the husband meeting our gaze or both husband and wife gazing off into the distance. Here, however, Alexander gazes in his wife’s direction, while Angelica steadily regards the viewer. Peale’s feelings toward the young couple are apparent: his admiration for his talented and lovely daughter and his annoyance with his pompous son-in-law.

Peale produced two versions of the portrait; the one belonging to Reynolda House is the second, and a comparison of the two reveals that the artist made numerous improvements over the first version. In addition to certain refinements of dress and background, the second version of the painting boasts faces that are more delicately and skillfully painted. [3]

Charles Willson Peale was a complicated figure—at once a product of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rationality and self-improvement, and a deeply flawed individual, who himself acknowledged his “colorick [choleric] disposition” and could allow his personal feelings about his sitters to color his depictions of them. [4] In the double portrait of his daughter Angelica and her husband Alexander Robinson, we see evidence both of the artist’s own feelings and of the rapidly shifting culture in which the work was produced.

[1] Charles Coleman Sellers, Charles Willson Peale (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969), 273; Peale, quoted in Charles C. Eldredge, Barbara Babcock Millhouse, and Robert G. Workman, American Originals: Selections from Reynolda House, Museum of American Art (New York: Abbeville Press, 1990), 28, and David C. Ward, Charles Willson Peale: Art and Selfhood in the Early Republic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 129.
[2] Benjamin Franklin, quoted in Kate Redford, The Art of Domestic Life: Family Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2006), 75. For examples of two pendant portraits painted by Peale, see the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Mifflin, 1777–80, in Lillian B. Miller, ed., The Peale Family: Creation of a Legacy, 1770–1870 (Exhibition catalogue. New York: Abbeville Press in association with the Trust for Museum Exhibitions and the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1996), 126.
[3] For an image of the first version, see Sellers, Charles Willson Peale, 273.
[4] Ward, Charles Willson Peale, xii.

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