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Still Life with Steak

Not on view

Still Life with Steak

Artist: Raphaelle Peale (American, 1774 - 1825)

Date: 1816-1817
Medium: Oil on wood panel
Framed: 21 1/8 x 27 1/4 x 3 1/4in. (53.7 x 69.2 x 8.3cm)
Overall: 13 3/8 x 19 1/2in. (34 x 49.5cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'Painted by Raphaelle Peale'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 53.215
Label Text
Raphaelle Peale was America's first still life painter. This picture is masterful work, full of vibrancy and the celebration of the commonplace. The focus of the painting is a hearty slab of steak, blood red and raw, surrounded by glistening borders of fat. Part of the meat spills over the flat surface it rests on into the painting's foreground, enticingly close to the viewer. Surrounding the steak is an assortment of vegetables; a thick head of cabbage, a beet and savory looking carrots. Raphaelle's depiction of the ingredients of a stew calls to mind the warm appetizing elements of a kitchen and the meal that will soon be prepared.

Sandra Vázquez
Diversity Intern, 1997

Text Entries

Still Life with Steak by Raphaelle Peale is one of that artist’s most typical, and at the same time most unusual, pictures. Raphaelle, the oldest of the painter-sons of Philadelphia’s artistic doyen, Charles Willson Peale, was also the most supremely gifted of his generation. Unfortunately, those gifts were in inverse proportion to their aesthetic appreciation by the connoisseurs of his time, which included critics, collectors, his fellow artists and his father, and very probably himself; that is, Raphaelle was, in general, a quite mediocre portrait painter, a first-rate miniaturist, and a brilliant still-life painter at a time when still life was deemed the least worthy of all the original forms and themes of artistry.(1)

This is not to say that Peale’s still-life paintings were not admired by the critics of the early nineteenth century in Philadelphia, where Peale painted, nor that the leading patrons of art did not acquire his work; quite the contrary.(2)  But the critics would always qualify their admiration by demeaning the genre itself, and the collectors would pay paltry sums for even the finest of his pictures. Charles Willson Peale, too, in his letters to Raphaelle and to other members of the family would commend Raphaelle as unexcelled in this special line of artistry, but would express concern that he improve himself in portraiture.(3)

Raphaelle Peale was the founder of the American still-life painting tradition as well as its finest practitioner, at least during his lifetime and arguably in the whole history of the art form in this country. While Raphaelle must have painted still lifes as early as 1795, when a group of eight of them were shown in the first public art exhibition held in this country, at the Columbianum in Philadelphia, almost all of his located works in this genre date from the decade of 1813 to 1822. This corresponds generally to the availability of public exhibition for such works, since, after the abortive single show held by the short-lived Columbianum, temporary exhibitions where artists might exhibit their work for sale did not start up again in Philadelphia until annual shows began to be held at the Pennsylvania  Academy of the Fine Arts in 1811. While Raphaelle may well have painted still lifes during the almost two decades between the Columbianum show of 1795 and the first examples he exhibited at the Academy in 1812, it is likely that these years were primarily devoted to oil portraits, miniatures, and silhouettes, which would have been commissioned before they were created; still-life painting was generally speculative and necessitated an exhibition outlet.

Raphaelle’s still lifes were almost totally pictures of edibles. Fruit painting constitutes the great majority of the approximately fifty-five located examples, as do also the projected 125-150 that one speculates he may have created. The objects in these pictures correspond to the aesthetics of contemporary Neoclassicism: he emphasizes solid, sculptural form, often reduced to near-perfect geometric shapes—spherical peaches, oval grapes, cleanly sliced watermelons, and the like. The fruit itself, too, seems in perfect shape, seldom displaying age or imperfection. The forms are laid out on a shallow surface, referred to as a “tabletop,” but not precisely defined as such and possibly a shelf, or a board, of neutral tone. This “support” is not allowed to distract the viewer’s attention from the primary objects, nor is the neutral background of a plain wall, animated only by a changing gradation of light and dark. The edibles themselves are arranged parallel to the picture plane and are usually centered on the support, the composition close-ended, with no forms protruding beyond the right and left edges of the composition. Occasionally, as in the present work, an element of the composition might overhang the “tabletop,” but this small acknowledgment to the tradition of trompe l’oeil, or deceptive realism, is generally underplayed; formal concerns rather than trickery and illusionism are Peale’s main motivations.

But while Still Life with Steak is, aesthetically, a classic example of Raphaelle’s mastery at its finest, the subject matter is among his most unusual. Fruit paintings were viewed as decorative, suitable for hanging in a dining room or a parlor; vegetable and meat pictures constituted “kitchen” still lifes, and in their very nature were far less saleable, however beautifully rendered, and thus far less often painted. Other vegetable paintings by Raphaelle are known, though not many, but this is the only picture of meat known by him, and, in fact, 1817 would seem to be the last year that he painted kitchen pictures of any sort. The picture was probably completed in the winter of 1816—17, for he tended, as most painters, to publicly exhibit his most recent work; the present example was first shown at the Peale Museum in Philadelphia, in March I8I7, when a local newspaper announced on March 4 that a “still life Piece, representing a fillet of Veal and Vegetables—Painting by Mr. Raphael [sic] Peale"(4) was on view there. Subsequently it was shown later that spring at the annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy, but it still appears not to have sold, for it was shown again at the Academy, posthumously, in 1829.(5) For all the beauty of the rendering of its form, for all its abstract majesty, wherein Raphaelle endowed objects so utterly inelegant and mundane with formal grandeur and chromatic symphony, it did not have the necessary decorative appeal.

In Raphaelle Peale’s oeuvre, the picture is unusual in another way, beyond its subject matter. In most of his still lifes, his choice of objects is dictated, as here, by their availability, but they are organized to conform to formal preoccupations; that is, they are chosen and arranged generally according to abstract concerns. Peaches and grapes may “go well” together, but they are not inevitable companions. In the other example of his work in the collection of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art, Still Life with Celery and Wine, celery makes little “sense” combined with yellow apples. But here, the beef, along with the cabbage, carrots, and a turnip, suggests a stew, a hearty, enjoyable meal, made certainly of only the finest ingredients, which logically combine together in daily eating.  And it may be that the logicality of Raphaelle’s choice of objects seemed to lack, therefore, his usual formal artistic selection and intention, qualities demanded of a “true” work of art.

Certainly, such a subject was exceedingly unusual, even unique, in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia or, for that matter, in this country. The presentation of a meal, per se, was a noted feature in many of the still lifes of the great eighteenth-century French master Jean-Baptiste Chardin, but Chardin’s still lifes were not to be seen in Philadelphia at the time, nor would their lack of Neoclassic purity and austerity necessarily have appealed to the Philadelphia painter. More evocative would have been the work of the great Spanish seventeenth-century painter Juan Sanchez Cotan, several of whose paintings were shown at the Pennsylvania  Academy in the following year, 1818, and were most probably brought to this country by Joseph Bonaparte around 1815; Raphaelle could conceivably have seen them even before they were shown publicly at the Academy. The aesthetic of Cotan is close to that of Peale’s; moreover, both of the examples of Cotan’s work, shown at the Academy in 1818, included vegetables that correspond with the two examples painted by Raphaelle in 1818 and now in the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art —-Cotan’s now unlocated Still Life—Celery, Birds, Lemons, Etc., and his Still Life-Quince, Cabbage, Melon, Etc. (San Diego Museum of Art). The pairing of these two works, which were most likely installed in 1816 in Point Breeze, the estate that Bonaparte purchased near Bordentown, New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia, and the two vegetable still lifes containing, respectively, celery and a cabbage, which Peale painted early the following year, seems more than coincidental.(6) Despite the honorable and historic lineage that such works by the Spanish master may have established, Peale was not to return to the vegetable theme again, and it appears extremely seldom even in subsequent American still-life painting. The theme of meat (except for the separate dead-game tradition) was even more rare, though it had previously appeared in Philadelphia at the Columbianum show of 1795 in the Ribs of Raw Beef exhibited by Dr. John Foulke, an amateur artist and one of the organizers of the Columbianum. The theme resurfaces, perhaps most notably, in Henry Smith Mount’s Beef and Dead Game of 1831 (Suffolk Museum 8: Carriage House, Stony Brook, New York), which seems more in the tradition of sign painting out of which Mount came than the fine arts heritage of still-life painting established by Raphaelle Peale.(7)



1. For a near-contemporary American evaluation of the hierarchy of artistic genres, see Daniel Fan- shaw, “The Exhibition of the National Academy of Design, 1827,” The United States Review and Literary Gazette, vol. 2 (July 1827), pp. 241-63.

2. The present author is at work on an examination of Peale’s life and career, with emphasis on his still-life painting; given the infancy of American art criticism at that time, Peale was not ignored. Such major collectors as Robert Gilmor of Baltimore, Charles Graff of Philadelphia, James J. Fullerton of Boston, and John Ashe Alston of South Carolina, among others, all included examples of Peale’s still lifes in their collections.

3. Charles Willson Peale’s references to Raphaelle’s artistic abilities and priorities (as well as his constant nattering at him for his profligate ways!) are innumerable in both letters to his son and references to other members of the family. To cite just one, see Charles Willson’s letter to Raphaelle of November 15, 1817: “Your pictures of still life are acknowledged to be, even by the painters here, far exceeding all other works of that kind-and you have often heard me say that, with such talents of exact imitation, your portraits ought to be more excellent. My dear Raphaelle, why will you neglect yourself‘? Why not govern every unruly passion? Why not act the man. . . ." Charles Willson Peale Papers, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, now available on microfiche, see Lillian B. Miller, ed. The Collected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family (Millwood, N.Y.: KTO Microform, 1980).

4. “Peale’s Museum . . .,“ Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, vol. 46 (March 4, 1817), p. 1.

5. It is likely that this picture remained, in fact, in the collection of the Peale Museum in Philadelphia, for it is probably identical with item no. 257, Cutlet and Vegetables (no artist specified), which was on view in Cincinnati in 1852, in an attempt to transfer the contents of the Peale Museum to that city. See Catalogue of National Portrait and Historical Gallery, Illustrative of American History (Cincinnati: Gazette Company Print, 1852), p. 24.

6. For the most recent discussion of the work of Sanchez Cotan, and particularly ofthe appearance of his work in this country in the 1810s, see the essay by William B. Jordan in Spanish Still Life in the Golden Age, exhibition catalog (Fort Worth, Tex.: Kimbell Art Museum, 1985), pp. 58-60. As Jordan suggests, it is also possible that Mrs. Richard Worsam Meade owned the two Sanchez Cotan still lifes and lent them to the Pennsylvania Academy in 1818; although it appears more likely to the present author that the pictures were in Bonaparte‘s collection rather than Meade’s, they might well have been available to Peale prior to their exhibition in either case.

7. Henry Smith Mount, brother of the artists William Sidney and Shepard Alonzo Mount, is the least studied of the three Mount artist-brothers. In 1824 he entered into partnership with the painter William Inslee in New York City; the firm of lnslee & Mount did sign and ornamental painting.


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