Rubens Peale (1784-1865)

Emily Arndt, Class of ’13, Dickinson College

Rubens Peale with a Geranium by Rembrandt Peale (1801) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Rubens Peale was one of sixteen children of artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale. He was born with poor eyesight, and–unlike most of his brothers–did not originally plan to be an artist. In fact, Rubens did not begin painting until very late in his life. However, from a young age, he shared his family’s love of natural history and expressed an lifelong interest in botany. He had a love for plants and possessed the ability to grow even the most difficult varieties. As a boy, he suffered from a variety of illnesses and was forbidden to tend to the garden. A journal entry from later in his life recounts a time when Rubens defied his doctor’s wishes: “I then went into the garden and took the watering pot and watered my flowers which I was forbidden to do, after that time I gradually increased my strength and health.” He decided to pursue a career in museums and, in 1810, he became the director of his father’s museum in Philadelphia. He held this position until 1821, the year he joined his brother Rembrandt Peale at the Peale Museum in Baltimore, where they both served as directors.

In 1825, Rubens opened his own museum, the New York Museum of Natural History and Science. His museum housed collections of insects and butterflies, stuffed animals (Rubens was also interested in taxidermy), paintings, sculptures, and even a pair of Egyptian mummies. Rubens took his museum very seriously, viewing it as a place for scientific inquiry and examination, and frequently held lectures on various emerging scientific theories. Unfortunately, in the early 1840’s the museum fell into debt, and Rubens was forced to sell his entire collection to P. T. Barnum, circus entrepreneur and owner of the competing American Museum. It seemed that museum-goers wanted freaks of nature rather than just “ordinary” nature, and so, unwilling to condescend to the addition of freaks and curiosities to his displays, Rubens retired from the museum business. He moved to Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania, to live a quiet life on his father-in-law’s farm.

Rubens Peale’s accomplishments, however, were far from over. In 1855, at the age of seventy-one, Rubens began still-life painting, and continued painting until his death in 1865. He never stopped learning and developing his style, and in 1864, only one year before his death, he returned to Philadelphia to study landscape painting with fellow artist Edward Moran. In the last ten years of his life, he produced one hundred and thirty paintings.

Surprisingly, the painting for which Rubens Peale is best known is not even his own work! The portrait above, entitled Rubens Peale with a Geranium, was painted by Rubens’ brother, Rembrandt Peale, and is one of the few existing pictures of Rubens. The geranium in the portrait is rumored to have been the first geranium ever grown in the United States. Although this rumor is probably false, it is true that geraniums were not native to America and had been recently introduced to the country. Rubens, who was only 17 at the time he sat for this portrait, was one of the few botanists who knew how to properly raise these flowers. Rubens was painted with a geranium to symbolize his love of plants, and Rembrandt pays as much attention to each individual leaf of the flower as he does to his brother’s facial expression and pose. Rubens does not appear to “own” the plant; rather, he and the geranium are painted virtually as equals, as both occupy half of the canvas. The painter is thus willing to suggest a powerful connection between humans and the botanic world; indeed, the flower’s height and width suggest that it almost dominates the image. Rubens’s hand rests in the flower-pot, perhaps so that he can determine if the geranium needs water.

These two paintings (left and below) are by Rubens himself. On the left is Landscape with Quail – Cock, Hen, and Chickens. Rubens sets a family of quail against a traditional county landscape. He pays meticulous attention to the feathers of the quail, so that the colors cannot be seen as mere brushstrokes. The earthy colors add a vibrant but muted realism to the painting. The painting on the right (below) is Still Life with Watermelon. Rubens here uses vibrant colors so that the bunches of grapes seem to glisten with moisture, and the colorful peaches reveal their ripeness. The fruit appears natural and fresh-picked, rather than artificial or waxy. Both paintings are clearly representative of Rubens’ style. He mainly painted ordinary landscapes, animals, fruits, and plants, emphasizing the the beauty of the natural while at the same time focusing on a powerful painterly technique and technical excellence.

Rubens Peale passed on the family’s love of art to his only daughter, Mary Jane. The two studied painting together and met with other professionals to improve on their work. While his paintings are widely revered to this day, Rubens’s greatest accomplishment may have been his museum collection. His dedication to making natural history available to the common museum visitor set a model for contemporary museums and influenced museum directors and curators down to the present day.

Rubens Peale links:

Paintings at The Athenaeum


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