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Recent Acquisitions: James Peale, Still Life with Fruit (An Abundance of Fruit), about 1820–25

Hood Quarterly, spring/summer 2011

James Peale (1749–1831) was one of the earliest and most talented professional painters in America to specialize in still life. He was the younger brother and pupil of Charles Willson Peale, the patriarch of Philadelphia’s most distinguished family of painters. James Peale first gained recognition for his portraits in miniature and did not begin to paint still lifes regularly until late in his career, around 1820. This harmonious example reflects the lingering influence of neoclassicism in its rounded geometric forms and overall sense of balance and stasis. Two sources of soft illumination accentuate the work’s volumetric forms and rich tones. One light enters from the front left and another rises from behind the cluster of fruit to the far right, enlivening the dark background. The curling plum peel that extends over the edge of the table serves not only as a sinuous decorative element that enters the viewer’s space—an age-old artistic device—but may also serve as a pun on the artist’s surname.

In academic art circles of Peale’s era, still life was still considered the lowest form of artistic expression—far below ennobling historical, biblical, and literary subjects. Nonetheless, still lifes found a ready market among members of Philadelphia’s emerging middle classes, who were eager to adorn their dining rooms with artful arrangements of perfectly ripe fruit and elegant tableware. Whereas American still lifes of the period lack the abundant and complex symbolism associated with Dutch seventeenth-century still lifes, here the plentiful, well-formed fruit suggests the bounty of the American land, while the refined Chinese export porcelain basket points to Philadelphia’s prominence as a metropolitan center of trade.

The dramatic impact that Still Life with Fruit will have on the museum’s presentation of the story of American art prompted its designation as an acquisition commemorating the museum’s twenty-fifth anniversary, celebrated last October. Funds from the estate of Dr. Frank P. Stetz, given in loving memory of David Stewart Hull, Class of 1960, played a significant role in the museum’s ability to acquire this fine work.

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