Peale’s Court of Death.

Peale’s Court of Death.

  This picture, famous in the annals of American art, may now be seen to very good advantage at the Society Library Rooms, either in the brighter hours of the day or by gas-light.

  Much stress is laid, in the advertisements, upon the moral purpose or influence of the picture.—With regard to this we must observe that moral influence is not the legitimate object of works of art. It may naturally flow from them in so far as beauty is identical with health and virtue, but the object of the Fine Arts is simply to express thoughts in forms more perfect than the common course of nature furnishes. As all objects in a high way beautiful and perfect are intrinsically pure and noble, the mind of him who contemplates them is by that means elevated and expanded, but it is not their province directly to preach of vice or virtue—sin and its retributions. Where religion has afforded the best of all subjects, it has been because it presented types of what is universal. The Madonna represents a high and grand form of maternal tenderness, the sight of which may teach innumerable lessons, but it must be incidentally. Christ reproving Peter affords a subject for moral instruction, but when the true Artist takes hold of it, all petty details and inferences are subordinated to, or lost in, the sense of a being so raised above the region of doubt, speculation, and special precept by a thorough intelligence of the divine will that He and the Father are one.

  We have dwelt for a moment upon this, because the method of advertising Mr. Peale’s picture seems as if a work of Art needed some pretext or object beyond its natural one of representing what is most excellent in thought, most clear in imagination, and by so doing to confirm impressions already common enough, which prevent our people from looking at such works from the true point of view.

  Let us take, then, the picture in our own way, and inquire, first, as to the object of the artist; second, his mode of treatment; third, the degree of his success.

  As to the first, we are informed the object of the artist is two-fold, the moral one of giving juster ideas of death, than are usual, and the other, which seems to us the true poetic or artistic object of the picture, to express in an original way, his own feelings about death.

  Death is represented, not in the usual forms of a skeleton, or an old man mowing down lives, as the reaper the ears of corn, but as a Power and a Fate. This conception, quite as open to objection, in a philosophical point of view, as the others, since Death is not positive but negative, being not, in fact, a power, but only the absence of power—that is, of life, is yet poetical, as corresponding to a set of feelings which rise in the mind when we see souls cease to sustain the bodies which had been their temporary abode, and is well expressed by a stately form of old Egyptian calmness and grandeur, which, seated with its foot upon the dead body of a man cut off in the fullness of his strength, makes the centre to the picture.

  The statuesque stillness of this figure and its drapery, the shadows that fall around it, the coldness and rigidity of the corpse, form a centre of cold and dark, which bring out into very bold relief the forms and colors of the groups on either side, thus giving to the picture great effect, but one calculated, in our opinion, to produce emotions of solemnity and awe, if not of deep sadness, rather than to give that more serene view of Death which Mr. Peale says was his object. We have never seen any pictures, such as the Descent from the Cross, or Alston’s touching of the Dead Man’s Bones, where the centre was cold and dark in which this was not the case, while in such as the Nativity, where the light proceeds from the body of the child, or from a central group of warm, living figures, the emotions induced are those of peace, or hope, or joy. How can it be otherwise? The centre always is winning the eye to itself, and gives character to the whole picture.

  The leading figures on either side the corpse, Virtue sustaining Old Age, and Pleasure alluring Youth with her charmed cup, are finely conceived and colored. Here the view of the artist seems to have been truly catholic, for he has so done that the gazer may attach an allegorical or a human interest to the figures, according to his turn of mind. Lesser fancies or concetti such as that of the smoke from Pleasure’s cup hiding the presence of Death from her victim, or of the head of the corpse resting in the stream of oblivion, with which the painter has pleased himself, are equally left optional to be seen or not according to the quality of mental sight.

  As is usually the case when the contrast is attempted, Pleasure is made far more beautiful than Virtue. But in her train are many shapes of woe, which fill one side of the picture with dark shadows of darker realities.

  The group on the other side, representing a warrior accompanied by fire, pestilence and famine, and passing over the dead and vanquished, is the most powerful part of the picture. The attitude and onward motion of the female figure which represents the fire are admirable; the light from the torches upborne by her fierce arms casts a stern light on the scene in high poetic contrast with the other parts of the picture. Famine and Pestilence are both expressed with great force, and we read with no little interest in this ghostly, soothsaying age, where we totter on the brink of finding the bridge betwixt our inward and our outward destinies, that “for the figure of Famine, following in the train of War, the artist could find no model, though he sought her in many a haunt of Misery, and therefore drew her from his brain; but, strange to say, two weeks after the picture was finished a woman passed his house, who might have been sworn to as the original.”

  In effective grouping, in the use of lights and shades and in uniting of expression worthy “those creative depths from which comes the fullness of forms” the picture claims honors that declare Rembrandt Peale a Patriarch of American Art, and we hope New-York will not let pass from her this most valued portion of the inheritance he wills to his country.*

“Peale’s Court of Death.” New-York Daily Tribune, 13 December 1845, p. 2.