If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

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

Charles Willson Peale, Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale I), 1795, oil on canvas, 89-1/2 x 39-3/8 inches / 227.3 x 100 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art). View this work up close in the Google Art Project. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(piano playing) Steven: I'm convinced I'm going to follow that man. Beth: (laughs) I want to come too. Steven: We're in the Philadelphia Museum of Art- Beth: Looking at Charles Willson Peale's Staircase Group, a portrait of two of his sons: Raphaelle and Titian Peale. Steven: You'll notice that those names are familiar, he named his children after famous European painters. Beth: And scientists. Steven: He was amazing. Beth: He was an amazing man and this is an amazing portrait. Normally we think about full size 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 show piece for his museum which was the first American museum. Steven: 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 an institution of education, here we have this new democracy, this is the first time since creation of the democracy had existed, it was this grand experiment. And Peale understood that the populace needed an education in order to be able to make wise decisions. Beth: And so Peale founded the Columbianum, the first real American art school, an antecedent to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts that he was to found about 10 years after that and he founded, as we said, this first museum. We've talked about his achievements but we haven't talked about his playful side which is really in evidence here. Steven: That's true. Okay, so this painting is all about illusion-ism and what's most remarkable is not only the clarity with which his sons are rendered and 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. Beth: So the first step and the second riser are actually made of wood. They are real, they are not painted. Steven: But I can't tell it apart from the third riser. Beth: Yeah the illusion is incredibly convincing and in fact this doesn't look like a painting it really looks like a space that's opening up in the wall of the museum with a staircase for us to follow them up. Steven: It looks as if they have been walking up that stair and then they've turned, perhaps beckoned by their father, and they have spun around just for a moment- Beth: "Hold on a second." Steven: That's right and so there really is this sense of the momentary, 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. Beth: That's right and fallen onto the floor carelessly, but obviously very intentionally, is a ticket to Peale's museum. Steven: And we have something that is distinctly American here, art that he's creating for the people. Beth: I love the way that foreshortened knee pokes out from behind the door and pops into the light. Peale's also playing with rounded oval shaped forms against more linear forms. For example if you look at the round spots of pigment on the pallet, or the round shapes of the buttons, or the round shapes of their eyes, even the round shapes on that wallpaper in the background, balance against the lines of the steps or even the lines of that vest that he wears. Steven: So this real play of pattern, of illusion, it's really a sophisticated painting but it's not a painting that takes itself too seriously. It is relaxed, it's inviting and it feels authentic. Beth: 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 door frame. It's incredibly naturalistic and it follows this European tradition that art historians refer to as trompe l'oeil, tricking the eye. Steven: One art historian has called this the first original American painting and you can see why. It is this utterly original kind of invention that plays with our expectations of real and pictorial space, and also is very much a product of the newly founded nation. (piano playing)