Rare Peale Painting Loaned to Museum
Several early 19th-century American artists painted idealized female nudes that they justified for public display by giving the works moralizing titles drawn from classical mythology, the Jewish or Christian bibles, or secular literature and poetry. This intriguing painting of a winsome female nude, loaned to the Museum from a private collection in honor of the Museum’s 75th anniversary, was attributed in 1994 by the art historian Carol E. Soltis to the renowned Philadelphia portrait and history painter Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860). The painting, displayed for what might possibly be the first time in a public art museum, offers a tantalizing but presently incomplete view of Peale’s quest for notoriety and financial gain with eroticized subject matter.
During the conservation treatment undertaken on this picture shortly before being attributed to Rembrandt Peale, it was discovered that the work’s original nude figure had subsequently been painted over, probably later in the 19th century, by a diaphanous blouse and green skirt. The unknown artist who “clothed” the figure also covered the red cloth under the figure’s right arm with a darker color and added a grape vine in her left hand. The original painting reappeared after these later modifications were removed.
Carol Soltis has noted that this work is an example of the kind of sentimental work, usually medium in size, and referred to in the 18th and early 19th century as a “fancy picture,” that Peale painted from time to time, chiefly during the last two decades of his life. More significantly, according to Soltis, this painting is the only known example of Peale’s career-long interest in painting pictures of female nudes.
In 1815, his erotic, life-size figure painting of the mythological lovers Jupiter and Io provoked such vituperation in the Baltimore, Maryland, press that he radically altered the work and renamed it The Dream of Love. In Western art history there are several illustrious paintings that depict Jupiter rapturously embracing the beautiful river goddess Io. In 1855, five years before his death, Peale lamented in the journal Crayon that his revised interpretation of this mythological story provided him “some reputation, and sufficient profit; but being sold a few years after, it was destroyed by fire from the carelessness of the exhibitor, in Broadway [New York City].” Unfortunately, no image of what the picture looked like has yet been found.
Another fancy piece that Peale painted at the end of his career, titled Musidora (after the nymph that represents summer in James Thomson’s 1730 poem, The Seasons) also may have depicted a female nude, but this work was also destroyed in a fire at a commercial art gallery in Philadelphia late in 1850 or early in 1851. Historical exhibition records indicate that Peale displayed what must have been yet another version of Musidora in a public exhibition that took place in Detroit in 1853, but that painting is now lost. The titles of other works that Peale is known to have painted suggest that one or more of them might also have depicted female nudes; however, none of these paintings has been identified. Future research may determine whether the painting currently on display at the Museum is the lost Detroit Musidora, or another of Peale’s later fancy pictures or even, perhaps, a late-career repainting on a smaller scale of his notorious The Dream of Love. The publication of this painting for the first time ever in the Institute’s Bulletin will give the picture wider circulation and, hopefully, help to resolve some of the questions presently surrounding this work.