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Portrait of a Middle-aged Gentleman

Not on view

Portrait of a Middle-aged Gentleman

Artist: Raphaelle Peale (American, 1774 - 1825)

Date: c. 1795
Medium: Watercolor on ivory
Overall: 2 x 1 5/8in. (5.1 x 4.1cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 67.79
Label Text

Various members of the Peale family made the portrait miniatures displayed in this case. These small, painstakingly executed "tokens of sentiment" were usually commissioned as luxury gifts for loved ones or as keepsakes or mementos of a deceased or absent person. Miniatures were usually encased in a fancy locket that could be worn as jewelry, displayed in a domestic setting, passed down from generation to generation as an heirloom or secreted away in a small case for private viewing. In all these instances, portrait miniatures served as a tangible symbol of the interpersonal relationships that bind a society together. On the backs of three of the miniatures in this case there are locks of hair encased behind crystals. This underscores the idea that miniatures served as a kind of reliquary in commemoration of the person whose likeness was preserved on the front. In the early decades of the eighteenth century the vellum, metal and paper surfaces on which miniatures were painted in previous centuries were abandoned in favor of thin disks of ivory; a luminous, slippery surface that was notoriously difficult to paint on with watercolor media.

James Peale learned the art of miniature painting in the early 1770s from his older brother, Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). James specialized in this genre until his eyesight began to fail around 1818 and then turned his attention to still life painting, executing masterful compositions like the one displayed elsewhere in this gallery. Charles Willson's eldest son Raphaelle began painting portrait miniatures around 1795. He continued in this vein until around 1812 and then devoted himself almost exclusively to still life painting, two examples of which are also displayed in this gallery. Raphaelle's miniature of Mary Seecamp, the wife of a Baltimore merchant, was painted when she was about twenty-six. She died eight years later. A mid-19th inscription written by a family member on a paper label that was affixed to the back of the miniature eulogized Mary as "an affectionate wife, kind sister . . . warm heart[ed] daughter and sincere friend." It notes that the fur "cloak" she is shown wearing was presented to her husband by friends in Germany. The inscription concludes that "for many years," Mary was "a fashionable Lady of the City of Balt[imore]."

James's daughter, Anna Claypoole, the first professional woman artist in the Peale family, began painting miniatures around 1810-12 when both her father and uncle ceased working in this genre. She quickly rose to prominence and was in demand as a miniaturist until she withdrew from public life at the time of her marriage in the early 1840s. Genealogical records owned by the family from whom the miniature was acquired, and a monogram on the back of the miniature itself, suggests that it depicts George S. Gibson, about which little else is known except that he had family ties to the city of Baltimore.


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