Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Staircase Group (The)

After Charles Willson Peale’s The Staircase Group emerged from a private collection in the mid-twentieth century, the Philadelphia Museum of Art placed the compelling trompe l’oeil (deceive the eye) double portrait on display and it became widely reproduced in American popular and art historical literature. Its contemporary popularity echoed the popularity it enjoyed at Peale’s Philadelphia Museum (1786-1854) between its creation in 1795 and 1854 when the museum’s financial failure forced the sale of its painting collection.

A painting which creates the illusion of an ascending staircase set in a door frame, with the first step physically attached to the front of the painting, extending slightly onto the paintings (doorway) frame on each side.  In the painting, two boys ascend the staircase, one (at left, ascending the stairs, facing slightly away from the viewer) with a palette and paintbrush, the other merely peering out from behind the frame, higher up the stairs at the left side.

Charles Willson Peale’s The Staircase Group was acquired by Philadelphia collector Joseph Harrison from the 1854 sale of the Peale Museum’s paintings. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) was among the most notable portrait painters of revolutionary and federal Philadelphia and the innovative founder of America’s first museum created to educate and entertain the public through lectures, demonstrations, and carefully presented collections of art and natural science. His Staircase Group shows two of his sons, Raphaelle (1774-1825) and Titian Ramsay (1780-98), in that museum, as indicated by the admission ticket seen on the step near Raphaelle’s foot. Both sons were an integral part of this enterprise and Raphaelle, shown palette in hand, assisted his father while honing his skills in portraiture and the still life painting for which he is now famous. His younger brother, Titian, was admired for his expertise in natural science, developed while working on the museum’s collections. Although Titian died four years after the portrait was painted, his namesake, Titian Ramsay (1799-1885), carried on this tradition as a notable explorer and naturalist.

A self-portrait painting by Charles Willson Peale. He stands (depicted bust-up) in front of a red curtain with a hallways behind him to the left. Shelves line the hallway wall, filled with various implied antiques. A delicate chandelier hands about halfway down the hallway above an open door to the left amongst the shelving. Peale is bald on top with brown eyes,wearing a black overcoat over a white-collared shirt.

This self-portrait, created by Charles Willson Peale, shows him within his museum on the second floor of the Pennsylvania State House (later known as Independence Hall). (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Visitors recorded seeing it installed in a doorframe with a real stair beneath it to reinforce its illusionism. According to Raphaelle and Titian’s brother, Rembrandt (1778-1860), President George Washington (1732-99), whom Charles painted from life seven times, mistook the highly illusionistic picture for the young men themselves, while visiting the museum to see life-size wax figures of Native Americans in authentic dress. For Charles Willson Peale this picture exhibited his ability as a portraitist and his technical expertise in making pictures calculated to impress and entertain the public.

Trompe l’oeil paintings, drawings, and wax figures enjoyed international popularity at this period. Such works teased viewers perceptions, either delighting them when they were surprised by an illusion or awakening them to greater vigilance about accepting what they saw “at first glance.” As art historian Wendy Bellion observed, the popularity of such illusionistic pieces in Philadelphia at this time may have reminded citizens to maintain a healthy skepticism about the activities of their government, not just its public pronouncements.

A print of an etching of the Philadelphia State House (or Independence Hall) from the rear, with a group of Native Americans standing in front on the grass and a group of high-class Philadelphians walking on a path from the State House on the far left.  Trees stand in a park to the right, and near the center of the composition, Peale's Museum can be seen in the background beyond several people lounging on the grass beside the State House.

William Birch’s engraved view Back of the State House, Philadelphia shows the Peale Museum, then located in the building of the American Philosophical Society, in the background through the trees. (Library of Congress)

In 1795 Peale’s Museum was located in Philosophical Hall, the home of the American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 “to promote useful knowledge.” Positioned on the east side of the State House, it was at the center of the sophisticated social, political, and cultural life of Philadelphia when it served as the U.S. capital. Prior to its installation in the museum, The Staircase Group was shown at the inaugural exhibition of the Columbianum (May-July 1795), America’s first, short-lived art academy that Charles was instrumental in founding. Here modest and accomplished work by a variety of artists was seen alongside sophisticated large scale portraits by famous American-born artists John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), Joseph Wright (1756-93), and Benjamin West (1738-1820), then the second president of Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts. It was with these artists Peale wished to compete and the picture he identified as Portraits of two of his Sons on a stair case was conceived within the artistic tradition he learned while studying with West in London from 1767-69.

This academic tradition, which Peale followed in his most ambitious portraits, directed artists to improvise on the work of an accomplished artist. This provided a template for a composition and often provided sentimental or intellectual associations relevant to the new picture. These enriching pictorial references impressed educated viewers with an artist’s understanding of the great art of the past and raised his status among his peers. Famous works were available through engravings of which Peale had a large collection.

A lithograph (black and white) featuring two lords, the one on the left with a large sash, or cloak, draped across his body and leaning to the right, toward the second figure, who stands facing left (and slightly away) with his left foot placed on a small step. Both lords have curly hair and wear fine dress.

This mid-eighteenth-century British mezzotint engraving by James McArdell served as inspiration for Peale’s Staircase Group. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

The celebrated picture Peale referenced in his Sons on a Staircase was Lord John Stuart with his brother, Lord Bernard Stuart, painted by Europe’s most admired portraitist, Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), the namesake of Peale’s infant son, who had died in 1794. This reference highlighted the contrast between siblings of the hereditary British aristocracy and those of America’s new democracy. As Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), then president of the Peale Museum’s board, believed, America had a “natural aristocracy” defined by “virtue and talents” rather than privilege and “this was the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society.” Engaged, rather than relaxed like Van Dyck’s young noblemen, Peale’s sons, Raphaelle and Titian–Nature’s young noblemen–actively welcome visitors into their family’s museum, an enlightened enterprise their artist-patriot-entrepreneur father, Charles Willson Peale, deeply believed would serve their new nation.

Carol Eaton Soltis is Project Associate Curator, Peale Collection Catalogue, American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Copyright 2016, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Bellion, Wendy. Citizen Spectator. Art, Illusion, & Visual Perception in Early National America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2011.

Brigham, David R. Public Culture in the Early Republic. Peale’s Museum and Its Audience. Washington & London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

“Charles Willson Peale, The Artist as Museum Keeper, 1791-1810.” In The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale, Lillian B. Miller, editor; Sidney Hart, assistant editor; David C. Ward, research historian, vol. 2, pt.1. New Haven & London: Yale University Press for the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1988.

Leppert, Richard. Art & the Committed Eye, The Cultural Functions of Imagery. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, Harper Collins, 1996.

Peale, Rembrandt. “Reminiscences, The Person and Mien of Washington.” The Crayon (April 1856), vol.3, no.3, p. 100.

“The Autobiography of Charles Willson Peale.” In The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale, vol. 5. Lillian B. Miller, editor; Sidney Hart, editor; David C. Ward, senior associate editor; Lauren E. Brown, Sarah C. Hale, Leslie K. Reinhardt, editorial assistants. New Haven & London: Yale University Press for the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2000.

Sellers, Charles Coleman. “Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 42, pt.1. Philadelphia, 1952.

Sellers, Charles Coleman. Mr. Peale’s Museum: Charles Willson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1980.

Soltis, Carol Eaton Soltis, “Ascending the Staircase.” In Rembrandt Peale, ‘In Sympathy with the Heart,’ An American Artist and the Traditions of European Art. Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2000.

Waggoner, Jennings L. Jr. Jefferson and Education. Preface by William G. Bowen. Monticello Monograph Series. Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2004.

Collections

Peale-Sellers Collection and Peale Family Papers, American Philosophical Society, 104 S. Fifth Street, Philadelphia.

Primary source materials on the Peale family and their museums, Library Company of Philadelphia, 1314 Locust Street, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Places to Visit

Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia.

American Philosophical Society, 105 S. Fifth Street, Philadelphia.

Independence Square (State House Square), between Fifth and Sixth and Walnut and Chestnut Streets, Philadelphia.

One Comment Comments

  1. Excellent essay! Are all the entries of this high quality??

    Susan Detweiler Posted June 8, 2016 at 3:32 pm

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