Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825), Venus Rising from the Sea – A Deception (c.1822), oil on canvas, 61.3 x 74 cm. Collection of Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, USA. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Charles Wilson Peale painted Staircase Group in 1795, showing two of his sons climbing a spiral staircase.
My favorite part of this piece is probably the unexpected character who plays the lead in its most famous (if possibly apocryphal) associated story: as the Philadelphia Museum of Art relates, “Rembrandt Peale, another son, recalled that his father’s friend George Washington, misled by Peale’s artifice, tipped his hat and greeted the two young men as he walked by.”
A close second, though, is the wonderful way in which Peale has shaded Titian’s knee, so that it seems to extend ever so slightly past the door frame into the light.
Even for his signature, Peale chooses not to break the illusion, putting a card on the step next to his son’s shoe to bear his name instead.
Today, we wish a happy 275th birthday to artist Charles Willson Peale. Peale is best known for his portraits of early American leaders, and for establishing one of the first museums, right here in Philadelphia.
Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale I) (1795). Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741-1827). Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
On an unusually large canvas, Peale made one of his rare full-length portraits, showing two of his sons on an enclosed spiral staircase. Its high degree of detail and finish shows that the painting was clearly intended to be a trompe l'oeil “deception,” an effect that Peale never attempted elsewhere. To enhance the illusion, he installed the painting within a doorframe in his studio, with a real step in front.
I’ll admit, dear reader, that Raphaelle Peale’s Venus Rising from the Sea—A Deception is rather less effective on the screen than it probably is in person.
After all, it’s fairly obvious that Peale hasn’t leapt from his grave and run to your current location and draped his napkin discreetly over your phone, tablet, or computer in order to save your delicate eyes from an indelicate scene.
In the early 1820s when he painted it, though, it might have been more convincing. Not that I think too many viewers were actually fooled by the trompe l'oeil—but the concept would have been more familiar.
After all, even through the end of the 19th century it was not altogether uncommon for the owner of a painting that might be considered risqué to drape it with a curtain.
Join us on Friday evenings at Granite Hill for a new menu inspired by “Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life.” After the meal, feast your eyes on food still lifes in the exhibition and enjoy cocktails and music at Art After 5.
Raphaelle Peale, Venus Rising from the Sea–A Deception, also known as Still Life–A Deception–Venus Rising from a Bath (1822)
“By 1823, Peale had become an alcoholic and was painting solely to pay his bills–reducing his prices, even raffling off many of his still lifes. This work, which shows the lighter, fun-loving side of his nature, was done at the end of his difficult life. It was painted by Raphaelle apparently to shock and fool his hot-tempered wife, Patty, who nagged him day and night. This illusion of a naked woman behind a sheet was supposedly so successful that Patty tried to pull the sheet away and instead–much to her husband’s amusement–found herself scratching the canvas.”