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Current time:0:00Total duration:4:26

Peale, Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale)

Video transcript

I'm convinced I'm gonna follow that man I want to come too we're in the Philadelphia Museum of Art looking at Charles Wilson peels staircase group a portrait of two of his sons Raphael and Titian Peale you'll notice that those names are familiar he named his children after famous European painters and scientists it was amazing he was an amazing man and this is an amazing portrait normally we think about both sized portraits as being images of kings or the aristocracy or great heroes and here Peale has represented his two sons beckoning us up a staircase and this painting was meant as a showpiece for his museum which was the first American Museum this was a museum of art and it was a museum of science in fact one of its most famous exhibits were the bones of a mastodon you know it's interesting to think about what a museum of science and art meant in the early republic here was an attempt to create in the institution of education here we had this new democracy this is the first time since Greece that a democracy existed it was this grand experiment and Peale understood that the populace needed an education in order to be able to make wise decisions and so Peale founded the Columbia gnome the first real American art school an antecedent to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts that he was to found about ten years after that and he found it as we said this first museum we've talked about his achievements but we haven't talked about its playful side which is really in evidence here that's true okay so this painting is all about illusionism and what's most remarkable is not only the clarity with which his sons are rendered this wonderful staircase but it's the fact that the physical first step or first step and a half seamlessly becomes a painted environment and we have some trouble figuring out what's what so the first step and the second riser actually made of wood they're real they're not painted but I can't tell it apart from the third riser yeah the illusion is incredibly convincing and in fact this doesn't look like a painting it really looks like a space that's open than the wall of the museum with a staircase for us to follow them up it looks as if they have been walking up that stair and then they've turned perhaps back in by their father and they have spun around just for a moment that's right and so there really is the sense of the momentary in the sense of the physicality of the architectural space oh and by the way it's not just the step but the frame of the painting looks as if it were an early American door frame that's right and falling onto the floor carelessly but obviously very intentionally is a ticket to peals Museum and we have something that is distinctly American here art that he's creating for the people I love the way that foreshortened me pokes out from behind the door and pops into the light Pele is also playing with rounded oval shaped forms against more linear forms for example if you look at the round spots of pigment on the palate or the round shapes of the buttons or the round shapes of their eyes even the round shapes on that wallpaper in the background balanced against the lines of the steps or even the lines of that vest that he wears so this real play of pattern of illusion it's a really sophisticated painting but it's not anything that takes itself too seriously it is relaxed it's inviting and it feels authentic it feels democratic look at how convincing those shadows are and how the shadows really work to create that illusion not only that painted illusion on that second riser toward the right but also look at the top figure you can see that shadow cutting across his face caused by the doorframe it's incredibly naturalistic and it follows this European tradition that art historians refer to as trompe l'oeil tricking the eye one art historian has called this the first original American painting and you can see why it is utterly original kind of invention it plays with our expectations of real and pictorial space and also is very much a product of the newly founded nation you