Rembrandt Peale: a polished stylist, but a dull artist


January 03, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

In 1823, when Charles Willson Peale wrote to his son Rembrandt that "truth is better than a high finish," he summed them both up as portrait artists. For Charles Willson, the founder of the Peale dynasty of artists, truth was paramount. His most famous son, Rembrandt, often subordinated truth to other things, and a high finish was certainly one of them.

At Washington's National Portrait Gallery, Rembrandt currently enjoys what is billed as his first large-scale exhibition. He may, in fact, be enjoying it considerably more than many of its visitors, for Rembrandt Peale is not the most satisfying of portraitists.

If one looks to him for great personal style, a la John Singer Sargent, one will be disappointed, for through his long career he pursued a number of different styles -- emulating his father or Gilbert Stuart, or the British school, or the French. A tour of the exhibition does not leave one with the sense of an effort to forge a distinctly personal expression out of these influences, but rather to master techniques that would make his work more important and successful.

If one looks to him for the kind of deep, penetrating truth one finds in the work of Thomas Eakins, one will likewise be disappointed; few, however, achieve that kind of depth. But even if one looks for the Charles Willson kind of truth, what the show's catalog essayist Carol Eaton Hevner calls C. W.'s "cool documentary presentation of his sitters," there is all too often disappointment again.

Rembrandt was capable of straightforward and affecting portraits, especially early in his career, such as his 1800 and 1805 renderings of Jefferson. But frequently -- and increasingly as his career progressed -- his work became more generalized and idealized. The result is that we proceed from cliche to cliche as the artist strives to portray not individuals so much as certain qualities, whether of the Stylish Young Woman ("Victorine Elizabeth du Pont Bauduy," 1813), the Romantic Artist ("Horatio Greenough," 1829) or his favorite subject, the Father of His Country, in the famous "Patriae Pater" (nicknamed the "Porthole Portrait") of Washington (1824), which he painted about 80 times.

Rembrandt advertised this as the most accurate Washington portrait; but in composing it he put together features as represented in a variety of earlier portraits -- by his father, himself, Jean-Antoine Houdon and perhaps Stuart -- until the end product is not so much a likeness as a concept of National Hero. Although its features may resemble Washington's, it doesn't really look like a living human being. That becomes even more evident in Rembrandt's "Washington Before Yorktown" (1824), in which he borrows the head from "Patriae Pater" and sticks it on a gesturing body on horseback, where it simply looks ridiculous.

Individual vs. type

Perhaps the most instructive point in this whole show comes not far from the beginning, with the juxtaposition of the portraits "Rembrandt Peale" (1805-1818) by Charles Willson and "Charles Willson Peale" (1811) by Rembrandt. In the former you see a real, particular person, his gaze slightly challenging, his mouth almost willful; there are hints, too, in this visage, of a desire to please and an intelligence that wants to be recognized. It is not an especially deep portrait, but it is certainly a likeness of an individual.

In Rembrandt's Charles Willson, on the other hand, we have a Good Old Man, his forehead lined with the cares of life, his eyes a-crinkle with kindness. It might be a picture of Ebenezer Scrooge after the conversion, or a character portrayed by the aging Lionel Barrymore.

Compared with Rembrandt's portrait of him, Charles Willson's own "Self-Portrait" (1791) gives us a shrewder person, with no fatuous ooze of benevolence. Compared with Charles Willson's portrait of him, Rembrandt's own "Self-Portrait" (1828) is more handsome and more romantic. In the case of both men, the Charles Willson version looks closer to the truth.

All of that, however, is not to say that Rembrandt Peale doesn't deserve a major show. He does, for he was a well-known figure in American art in his time, and remains a well-known name in our art history, certainly in this part of the country and especially in Baltimore, thanks to the Peale Museum.

And if you're going to have a Rembrandt Peale show, this -- called "In Pursuit of Fame: Rembrandt Peale, 1778-1860" -- is a good one to have. It's thorough, but at about 90 works not too big. It's well-organized, in basically but not slavishly chronological form. Its didactics outline the story of Peale's life and work effectively, and the accompanying catalog, by Lillian B. Miller (who heads the office that is publishing the Peale family papers) and Hevner, covers the same in much more depth. In her essay on the work, Hevner acknowledges faults as well as virtues in Rembrandt's work. And, while she doesn't come right out and say so, there are hints of a preference for his early over his late work.

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