Painting Within Tent: How Titian Ramsay Peale has been overlooked

Titian Ramsay Peale (1799–1885), Kilauea by Night (1842), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. Wikimedia Commons.

Audubon wasn’t the only American naturalist painter of the nineteenth century, although he’s by far the most famous as a result of his books and their lasting appeal. Neither is his reputation entirely free from controversy: as I mentioned last week, he has been accused of plagiarism and fabrication of evidence. One of those who was critical of Audubon’s claims was another great expeditionary painter of the time, Titian Ramsay Peale II (1799–1885). While we have easy access to dozens if not hundreds of images of Audubon’s work, Peale’s have almost completely disappeared into obscurity.

As his name might suggest, Titian Ramsay Peale was born into an artistic family. His father, Charles Willson Peale, was a distinguished portrait painter and polymath who had studied under John Singleton Copley, and his siblings included painters Raphaelle, Rembrandt and Rubens. The family lived in Germantown, near Philadelphia, PA, where he showed an early interest in natural history. He began collecting and drawing butterflies, and helped his father with the family museum, which was one of the first in the US.

Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale I) (1795), oil on canvas, 226 x 100.5 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

His father Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827) painted this Staircase Group, a double portrait of Raphaelle and the first Titian Ramsay Peale in 1795, three years before the latter died, and four years before the birth of Titian Ramsay Peale II.

In 1817, Titian Ramsay Peale II joined what has been claimed to be the first private museum-sponsored expedition in the US, led by the Scottish-American geologist William Maclure, which explored Florida and Georgia. Two years later, he was off again, this time to the Rocky Mountains with Stephen Harriman Long, an engineer in the US Army. He travelled by steamboat up the River Missouri, painting and shooting specimens from the central and southern Great Plains and the Front Range of the Rockies. When they were forced to take to the land, he spent several months in contact with peoples of the First Nations, whom he sketched and painted too.

Titian Ramsay Peale (1799–1885), Prairie Dog (1819-21), watercolour, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

One of Peale’s very few natural history paintings still accessible is this fine watercolour of a Prairie Dog from 1819-21.

In 1824, Peale wintered in South Carolina and Florida on an expedition collecting bird specimens for an extension to Alexander Wilson’s book American Ornithology, which was published between 1825-33. He went even further afield in 1831, when he took part in an expedition to explore the Magdalena River valley in northern Colombia. His many fine drawings and watercolours of natural history subjects, and large collections of specimens, were acknowledged in 1833 when he was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society. From then, he also managed his father’s museum, which had become the Philadelphia Museum.

Between 1838-42, Peale was the chief naturalist on board the Peacock, which undertook the United States Exploring Expedition of the Pacific and its islands. Among the islands he visited was Big Island of Hawai’i, which he painted in oils in 1842.

Titian Ramsay Peale (1799–1885), Kilauea by Day (1842), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. Wikimedia Commons.

Kilauea by Day shows a fairly unimpressive active shield volcano on the south-eastern shore. Although this may appear peaceful, in 1790 one eruption killed more than four hundred people in what remains the most deadly volcanic eruption in the US, and another major eruption was recorded in 1823.

Titian Ramsay Peale (1799–1885), Kilauea by Night (1842), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. Wikimedia Commons.

This matching view of Kilauea by Night is much more impressively volcanic.

Peale’s expedition report was initially produced in 1848, but in 1851 almost all the copies of that original were destroyed in a fire at the Library of Congress, and the corrected report wasn’t published until 1858.

Titian Ramsay Peale (1799–1885), Bright House, Rehoboth Beach (1882), watercolour, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Late in his life, Peale seems to have painted some landscape views, including this of Bright House, Rehoboth Beach (1882). This beach is on the Atlantic coast of the USA, in Sussex County of Delaware state. Until the late nineteenth century, it had been poor farmland, but in 1873 was established as a site for Methodist camp meetings. Its name is the Biblical Hebrew for broad spaces, and by 1893 it was becoming a popular beach resort for those working in Washington, DC. Despite the clothing worn by the bathers, Rehoboth Beach has a subtropical climate.

Despite his long career of drawing, painting and illustrating natural history, and his apparent meticulous and modest approach, when Titian Ramsay Peale died in 1885, his art and achievements went almost unnoticed, and he was even buried in an unmarked grave. Such are the penalties for those who don’t promote themselves, I fear.