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Raphaelle Peale's triumph over trials. Artistic order survived sometimes chaotic life

RAPHAELLE Peale is now considered America's first great still-life painter, but on the knife-cold March day just before he died in poverty, it was doggerel, not painting, that supported him. In the catalog for ``Raphaelle Peale Still Lifes,'' now at the National Gallery of Art, there is a poignant letter written by Peale's nephew, George Escoll Sellers, about that last day. Sellers, then 17, writes of how ``Uncle Raphaelle'' entered a Philadelphia store and, shivering, took a seat by the wood stove. He called his nephew to him and showed him several pages of comic couplets written for pay a local confectioner.

``He said it seemed hard that art was at so low an ebb that an artist was obliged to write doggerel for his bread and butter,'' Peale's nephew wrote. Later that day he was found unconscious, and did not recover from the attack of illness and alcoholism which felled him.

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But Peale's triumph as an artist over the trials of his life can be seen in the glowing clarity of the paintings in this exhibition, the first one ever of his still lifes. In ``Fruit Piece with Peaches Covered by a Handkerchief,'' a wasp hovers on one coppery, velvet peach, while the other peaches are swathed with a handkerchief so sheer you could read the Philadelphia Inquirer through it. His perfect peaches, dusky fox grapes, the tingly yellow of his lemons and the mellow apples he painted in such painstaking detail are part of the artistic order he superimposed on a sometimes chaotic life. Under Peale's brush, even herring took on a gilded beauty in ``Still Life with Dried Fish.''

But there are hints of darkness in his paintings, too: a certain savagery about his ``Still Life with Steak'' in which the hacked, raw meat is a metaphor for unexpected violence. The same destructive feeling is present in the troubling ``Still Life with Watermelon'' in which the fruit is split open as though it had been dropped from the roof. In ``Fruit and Silver Bowl'' melon and pear are marked with the brown spots of spoilage.

Life had not been easy for Peale (l774-l825), the handsome eldest son of the most famous portrait painter of his day, Charles Willson Peale. Although his father called him ``blest with genius,'' Raphaelle's chosen field of still lifes was considered at the time the lowest form of art. Only 50 0f his approximately l50 still lifes survive; 32 are included in this show sponsored by the National Gallery and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

The Peale still lifes that fetch millions today sold for $l5 a piece then. They hardly supported Peale, who was also burdened with ill health, a disastrous marriage, and his drinking problem. He was financially and emotionally dependent on his domineering father in a large, talented family which included several painters - among them his uncle James and his brother Rembrandt.

Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., curator of American art at the gallery and curator of the exhibition, says of Peale, ``I think he resented his father. I think he probably painted still lifes rather than things his father would have preferred him to do, to challenge him in that way. He's a fascinating guy ... a lot of the turmoil, physical and mental, reminds one of other later but modern artists, too, like Van Gogh and Gauguin, who also painted a lot of still lifes, like C'ezanne. It's almost as though that was kind of the price one had to pay for a certain amount of artistic daring.''

Cikovsky says that Peale was an artist ``unjustly overlooked.'' He points to works that ``I think restore one of our wonderful artists, an artist better than his father, better than his brother, better than many other artists whom we pay a great deal more attention to now who were his contemporaries, an artist of extraordinary sensibility, sensitivity, originality, perceptiveness, of the finest artistic instinct and intellect.''

The exhibition runs through Jan. 29 at the Gallery's East Building, then goes to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Feb. l6-April l6. It is supported by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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