The Artist and His Family
This painting is indebted to the example of the conversation piece, the small-scale group portraits popular among eighteenth-century English landed gentry. Such paintings, popularized by Arthur Devis and William Hogarth, typically featured well-to-do families on their estates, surrounded by possessions and enjoying refined pastimes. Unlike the English models, with their emphasis on property and possessions, James Peale shows his young family in public, along the banks of the Schuylkill River. The depiction of Mary Claypoole on the same scale as her husband - indeed, partially obscuring him - suggests an equitable, affectionate relationship thirteen years into marriage, while the happy play of the couple's five children celebrates family life. Peale was no doubt influenced by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings on the education of children and advocacy of natural feeling were enormously popular in eighteenth-century Europe and America. James Peale was trained by his older brother, Charles, who recorded the instructional process in a large group portrait ("The Peale Family," 1771-73, New York Historical Society). James Peale himself carried on the tradition of familial instruction, teaching four of his children to paint. Besides this work, he is best known for his still lifes, some of the earliest American examples of this genre.