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Speaking up for `sentimental' art

An eclectic painter -- landscapes, portraits, still life, domestic animals, and so forth -- Paul Peel made his name with pictures of children. The best known of those is ``After the Bath,'' which apparently Sarah Bernhardt wanted, but it was reported to have gone instead to the Hungarian state. Today it is in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. In similar mood and style were, among others, ``The Tired Model'' and ``A Venetian Bather.'' These paintings have a sort of suffused gentility, or lush serenity, in which flowing lines, warmth, and richness of color combine, aiming -- in a phrase of John Ruskin's -- ``to give permanence to images such as we should always desire to behold, and might behold without agitation....'' Little wonder, then, that the pictures have been reproduced time without number to serve as nice little gifts for a favorite cousin or special aunt.

By way of contrast, this painting, whimsically titled ``Orchestra Chairs,'' counterbalances the tranquil and sometimes pensive qualities of Peel's earlier works with boldness and high spirits; it is as if Peel threw open the doors and windows of his artistic expression and aired it out, this being the result. There are elements of vitality here, missing from the interior scenes, that to my way of thinking make for a more jubilant, somehow fuller portrayal of children without sacrificing that ``desire to behold.''

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Paul Peel was born in London, Ontario. His father, John, who was in the business of memorial stone carving, had high hopes for Paul in the world of art and he taught him drawing and sculpture.

Following a stint with a local art instructor, young Peel moved on to Philadelphia, where he studied under Thomas Eakins, then over to the Royal Academy School in London and for five years in Paris, with Constant, G'er^ome, Boulanger, and Lefevre.

While in Paris, Peel sent canvases home to his father, who acted as his son's agent and mounted exhibitions through southwestern Ontario and east to Toronto and Montreal. Unfortunately, John Peel overplayed his role and seems to have antagonized art circles whenever he stepped into them. As a result -- and due to a certain inherent parochialism -- the paintings of Paul Peel sold poorly in Canada. With no reputation in his home country to speak of, he left it, never to return.

In 1882 Peel married an art student from Copenhagen, and he visited that city on many occasions to paint. He lived in and around Paris from about that time on, and saw out his days there just 10 years later.

A Canadian art historian wrote of Paul Peel, ``... with his `slick' technique and sentimental subjects [he] is the Canadian who comes closest to embodying in his art all that is popularly meant by the term `academic' painting.''

It would be folly to debate that point relative to much of Peel's artistic output. Several of his paintings are contrived, rather too pat; com-positionally you find a snapshot technique, and the colors hold everything together according to formulas, with no surprises. All the same, when one considers that Paul Peel's years in serious art numbered 14 at most (from the age of 17), it is perhaps remarkable that he produced memorable paintings of any kind.

As for ``sentimental'' art, there is possibly more justification for it today than ever before. After all, we seem to have arrived at a point where clinical thinking and icy analysis predominate in our daily lives. A little more emotion might not be a bad thing.

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To atone for 100 or so years of hometown neglect of their native son, the London (Ontario) Regional Art Gallery in its largest project to date recently mounted a comprehensive exhibition of 76 of Paul Peel's works. It opens at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, tomorrow (through Feb. 1, 1987); then travels to Concordia Art Gallery, Montreal; the Winnipeg Art Gallery; and the Vancouver Art Gallery next year.

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