Today’s guest columnist is Graham C. Boettcher.
The Birmingham Museum of Art is home to nearly 27,000 works of art encompassing cultures around the globe, created throughout human history.
More impressive than this object count is the incalculable number of stories represented by our collection. Works of art can provide us with insights about their makers, their subject matter, their materials, and the time and context in which they were made.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, one particularly striking painting provides an opportunity to acknowledge the achievements of Sarah Miriam Peale (1800-1885), widely regarded as the first woman to find commercial success as an artist in the United States.
The youngest daughter of the painter James Peale and niece of the eminent Philadelphia portraitist Charles Willson Peale, Sarah Miriam Peale was born into a dynasty of American artists sometimes known as “the painting Peales,” whose members largely encouraged her development as an artist, a rarity at a time when most young women’s education and artistic training—if they received any—was focused on their refinement and “finishing” as future wives and mothers.
Trained by her father, and later by her aptly named cousin Rembrandt Peale, Sarah Miriam Peale’s earliest work consisted of floral and still life paintings, but she quickly set her sights on portraiture, painting and exhibiting her first portrait, a likeness of herself, when she was just 17, a picture acclaimed as “wonderfully like” by her famous uncle.
In 1824, Sarah and her sister Anna Claypoole Peale became the first women to be elected to membership in Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (established 1805), the country’s first and oldest art school and museum. She established her studio in Baltimore, where she painted for 25 years, becoming that city’s leading portraitist. Peale’s work was prized for its realism, especially her lifelike rendering of skin and hair, as well as the attention she paid to the details of her sitters’ attire.
Because of Baltimore’s proximity to the nation’s capital, her talents were sought out by the Washington elites of her day, resulting in numerous commissions from diplomats and congressmen, including the Honorable Dixon Hall Lewis (1802-1848) of Alabama, who served first as a United States Representative and later as a Senator.
Born in Virginia, Lewis moved to Alabama in 1820, eventually settling in Lowndesboro, outside Montgomery, where he began to practice law. In 1829, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat, and served until 1844, when he was appointed to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Senator (and later Vice-President) William Rufus King was appointed Minister to France. To be sure, there is nothing honorable about the Honorable Dixon Hall Lewis’s congressional record: he supported slavery as well as the forced removal of Native Americans, and used his considerable skills as a rhetorician to lay the groundwork for Southern succession.
While Lewis was noted in the contemporary press for his speaking prowess, the majority of the public attention he received focused on his considerable size. An inscription in Peale’s hand on the reverse of the canvas records that at the time of Lewis’s sitting he weighed 460 pounds, but he was reported to have topped the scales at 500 pounds (for comparison, at the time of the Civil War, the average soldier weighed 140 lbs.) Lewis’s striking obesity made him the object of jokes among his Senate colleagues who liked to quip that “Alabama had the largest representation of any state.”
His considerable girth also provided fodder for political cartoons such as “Expansion & Contraction,” which contrasted the corpulent congressman with the gaunt figure of newspaper editor Francis Preston Blair.
In his 1872 book Reminiscences of Public Men in Alabama, William Garrett described that “a chair of very large dimensions, and of the strongest manufacture, was provided for [Lewis] on the floor of the two Houses of Congress.” Today, that chair resides in the Hoole Special Collections Library of the University of Alabama, where it for many years served as the desk chair for longtime University Librarian Amelia Gorgas, for whom the school’s main library is now named.
Executed between 1841 and 1843, Peale’s portrait of Lewis might best be described as a “speaking likeness,” a term reserved for an especially lifelike depiction of the sitter. Indeed, characteristic of her reputation, she paid special attention to the congressman’s skin, giving it a rosy vitality, and likewise painted his hair in such a way that every strand appears to be individually articulated.
Lewis’s elegant attire is punctuated by the red pendant hanging from a fob around his neck: a watch key made of red coral or carnelian set in gold, a common accessory for gentlemen before the advent of the stem-winding pocket watch. The inclusion of Lewis’s wood and silver walking stick also adds a distinguished mien to the portrait. Whereas for some men of the period a walking stick was simply a fashionable accoutrement, for Lewis it was a necessity: as William Garrett recalled, Lewis’s size “rendered walking rather disagreeable and always attended with fatigue.”
Lewis died at the age of 46 on October 25, 1848, just five years after sitting for Peale. He had gone to New York City, reportedly to seek medical treatment, and was interred in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, following an elaborate funeral procession after lying in state in New York’s City Hall. Period newspaper accounts described his coffin, noting it was of “uncommon size, of mahogany, and with body and lead casing said to weigh upwards of 900 lbs.”
Peale continued to enjoy a successful career, working for most of her life until her death in 1885. However, like many women artists of the 19th century, her reputation faded into obscurity until the mid 20th century, when scholars rediscovered and exhibited her work, inscribing her within her rightful place in the history of American art. Peale’s portrait of Lewis has been on view in the Birmingham Museum of Art’s American galleries since 1997, where it is the cornerstone of a growing collection of works by trailblazing women artists including Jane Stuart (1812-1888), Mary Josephine Walters (1837-1883), Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968), and Birmingham’s own Carrie Hill (1875-1857).
As this collection grows, so too will our ability to tell new, more complete stories about our nation’s art and the women who created it.
Graham C. Boettcher is The R. Hugh Daniel Director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, where he has served in various curatorial and administrative roles since 2006. A native of Bellingham, Washington, Boettcher received his B.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University, and an M.A. from the University of Washington.
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