Thomas Jefferson Papers

Charles Willson Peale to Thomas Jefferson, 3 July 1820

From Charles Willson Peale

Belfield July1 3d 1820

In the hope, my dear Sir, of giving you some little amusement on what I concieve an interresting subject, which my Son Rembrandt has very nearly2 completed for the Public Eye, Therefore I have made a Sketch of his Picture, enclosed, and trouble you once more with my address and a description of “Peale’s great Moral Picture the Court of Death.From Portius Poem on Death.

The center figuers shew the certainty of Death—The lifeless trunk of man lies prostrate at the foot of the awful power which commands the period of life—Sublime in its obscurity.

Old Age, conscious of his approaching end, submits to the inivitable and wise decree, And is supported by Virtue, whose pious thoughts are turned to heaven—“thy will be done.”

The right hand Group represents War with soul inflamed by envy, revenge, Ambition, striding over helpless innocence and unprotected Weakness. Behind him lies a Youthful Warriour, the victim of Glory, breathing his last Gasp. The disolating torch precedes—Famine & Pestilence follow.

The left hand Group represents the effects of Vice. A hapless Youth, whose noble energies are blasted by intemperance, holding the fatal Cup, deceptive Pleasure smiling on his ruin & preparing another draught. The shadow of death rest on the Bowl. At his shoulder stands remorse—Frenzy at his feet & in his shadow revolting Suecide. Fever, Opoplexy, Palsey, Gout, consumption &c terminate the Scene.

When I made my sketch from the picture the latter figuers was not painted in, as may [be]3 seen by the enclosed slight drawing. it is a very rude and imperfect performance, and is only ment to give an Idea of the design, The Painting is powerful in its effect, The drawing and colouring fine—The picture is 24 feet long & 13 feet high, and the figures a little4 larger than life, so that [at]5 a proper distance to take in the whole of the Picture they6 appear of the proper size.   It is a great effort of the genius of Rembrandt, and he has made great exertions to make it worthy of Admiration, on which rests much of his pecuniary concerns, for under the Idea that a Museum would give considerable support to a wife & 9 children, he has been at more expence in its establishment, than our present population can justifie. His Museum is a pattern of neatness, but his Buildings are too expensive for the profits of exhibition in Baltemore. And if this great Picture does not give him relief he must double his deligence in the Portrait line to extricate himself from a heavy rent. for he has engaged to pay too high an Interest for the Monies he owes for making his House.

I love the Art of Painting, but the greatest merit of execution on subjects that have not a virtuous tendency, loose all their value in my estimation.

A Picture now Exhibiting in Philada attracts an abundance of Visitants, It is the inside of a Chapel of Capucens at Rome—The painting has been made on the spot, and is a very well painted picture. It was purchased by a gentleman of fortune on his travels7 at a high price it is said, & also that the income from its exhibition is to be applied to a charitable Institution. The Picture is placed in the most advantagous light, with art, and no other picture in the Room—Therefore the Illusion is improoved. I am greatly mistaken if my Sons picture is not more attractive—Can it be partiality in me? my feeling I think does not deceive me.   I would have given you some extracts from Portius Poem on Death. but I fear I have been too lenthy already, and perhaps you possess the Poem. I shall only remark that Rembrandt has endeavored to produce a speaking Picture, and to avoid all emblamatical signs.

Pardon my prolexity—I wish to serve not to oppress you.8 May you long live enjoying perfect health, and any thing I can do to promote your amusement will be grateful to

your friend

C W Peale

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 8 July 1820 and so recorded in SJL. RC (Edward Churchill, Haddonfield, N.J., 1991); address cover only; with PoC of TJ to Ellen W. Randolph (Coolidge), 16 Jan. 1822, on recto and verso; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr Monticlla Verginea”; franked; postmarked Germantown, Pa., 5 July. PoC (PPAmP: Peale Letterbook).

Charles Willson Peale’s enclosed sketch of his picture may be the elder Peale’s pencil-and-ink version of Rembrandt Peale’s massive oil-on-canvas depiction of the court of death reproduced from a private collection in Peale, Papers description begins Lillian B. Miller and others, eds., The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, 1983– , 5 vols. in 6 description ends , 3:827. The painting has long been owned by the Detroit Institute of Arts and was inspired by Beilby Porteus (portius), Death: A Poetical Essay (Cambridge, Eng., 1759).

thy will be done is from the Lord’s Prayer in the Bible (Matthew 6.10; Luke 11.2).

The French artist François Marius Granet painted The Choir of the Capuchin Church in Rome (chapel of capucens) in 1814–15, and he copied it a number of times thereafter. The piece on display in Philadelphia was probably the one that had been recently “conveyed to the United States by an American merchant” (Boston Intelligencer & Evening Gazette, 15 Jan. 1820). The original is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

1Reworked from “June.”

2Manuscript: “nealy.”

3Omitted word editorially supplied.

4Manuscript: “alittle.”

5Omitted word editorially supplied.

6Manuscript: “thy.”

7Preceding three words interlined.

8Omitted period at right margin editorially supplied.

Index Entries

  • alcohol; abuse of search
  • apoplexy search
  • Baltimore, Md.; museums in search
  • Bible; Luke referenced search
  • Bible; Matthew referenced search
  • books; of poetry search
  • Christianity; Lord’s Prayer search
  • Death: A Poetical Essay (B. Porteus) search
  • drawings; by C. W. Peale search
  • fevers; depicted search
  • gout search
  • Granet, François Marius; The Choir of the Capuchin Church in Rome search
  • health; alcohol abuse search
  • health; apoplexy search
  • health; fever search
  • health; gout search
  • health; palsy search
  • health; tuberculosis search
  • museums; in Baltimore search
  • paintings; by F. M. Granet search
  • paintings; by Rembrandt Peale search
  • Peale, Charles Willson; and R. Peale’sThe Court of Death search
  • Peale, Charles Willson; as artist search
  • Peale, Charles Willson; letters from search
  • Peale, Rembrandt; Baltimore museum of search
  • Peale, Rembrandt; family of search
  • Peale, Rembrandt; The Court of Death search
  • Porteus, Beilby; Death: A Poetical Essay search
  • suicide; artistic depictions of search
  • The Choir of the Capuchin Church in Rome (F. M. Granet) search
  • The Court of Death (R. Peale) search