Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 17, 2003
Alexander Nemerov The Body of Raphaelle Peale: Still Life and Selfhood, 1812–1824 Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 274 pp.; 19 color ills.; 75 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0520224981)
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Alexander Nemerov states at the outset of The Body of Raphaelle Peale: Still Life and Selfhood, 1812–1824 that he aims to interpret yet enhance the “strangeness” of Raphaelle’s pictures. He succeeds beautifully. Raphaelle Peale (1774–1825), an American artist who painted ordinary foodstuffs with a descriptive intensity worthy of Gustave Flaubert, continues to fascinate long after the reader has closed this book’s cover. Reading Raphaelle through a trifurcated lens of Freudian psychoanalysis, late Enlightenment social theory, and early American social history, Nemerov explores the “uncanniness” of Raphaelle’s still lifes and argues that their subject was, however improbably, “both the pleasures and horrors of being less than a self” (4). With a decided emphasis on the horrors, this challenging and innovative study alters the terrain of a burgeoning interdisciplinary scholarship on the visual culture of postrevolutionary America.

Handsomely designed and generously illustrated, The Body of Raphaelle Peale constitutes the first book-length study of this enigmatic artist, a man who left a scant paper trail upon his death in 1824. Raphaelle’s painterly output of about one hundred still lifes was comparably modest, though exquisite. (His lifetime oeuvre included hundreds of portraits, miniatures, and silhouettes, but Nemerov omits consideration of this imagery without explanation.) The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, mounted a monographic exhibition of Raphaelle’s still lifes in 1988, and, over the past two decades, a handful of articles and catalogue essays have examined the pictures’ iconographical, social, and political significance.

While acknowledging his debt to this literature, Nemerov, to his credit, tries to steer clear of an issue that many scholars have felt obliged to probe: Raphaelle’s biography, specifically his tortured relationship with his father, painter Charles Willson Peale, and his chronic illnesses (variously interpreted as the result of alcoholism, gout, or heavy-metal poisoning). The project of investigating selfhood while circumventing biography might seem implausibly hopeful, and Nemerov does find it useful at points to analyze Raphaelle’s pictures against reports of his deteriorating health and his father’s epistolary scoldings. The author deserves kudos, however, for largely extricating the artist from Charles Willson’s orbit. He also reorients the familiar father-son rivalry to examine Raphaelle’s work alongside that of his younger brother, Rembrandt, an ambitious portraitist and history painter. In the process, Rembrandt emerges as a more ambivalent and interesting artist than he is usually represented to be.

Readers unfamiliar with Raphaelle’s life will encounter little mention of useful facts such as where he exhibited his work, how much it sold for, and who it was seen by. This approach seems to derive less from an assumption of foreknowledge than from the premise that one will learn all that one needs to know about the artist from his paintings. In his introduction, Nemerov underscores his intention to use Raphaelle’s art as his primary body of evidence. He immediately calls attention to the “uncanny” quality of Raphaelle’s still lifes and, invoking phenomenological methodology, posits that this quality is produced by the “embodiedness” of Raphaelle’s fruit, meat, and vegetables. Raphaelle’s paintings “simulate the artist’s own physical existence projected into the objects of perception,” and “they do so as a way of uncannily breaking down the position of a secure subject standing apart from the things he beholds” (2). Although Nemerov is careful to note that a fantasy of embodiment is at issue, not the artist’s actual body, he proves unwittingly adept at conjuring Raphaelle’s presence: for instance, in observing the peculiar turn of a flower toward the picture plane as if reflecting the Romantic “lamp” of the artist’s creativity, the author compels us to imagine the artist’s position before the canvas.

Social relations as well as object relations guide Nemerov’s project. The author explains that Raphaelle’s selfhood, like that of other early national Philadelphians, was shaped by competing models of personal identity: the “virtuous republican,” which describes an economically self-sufficient and politically disinterested citizen, and the “possessive individual” (a term borrowed from C. B. Macpherson), which emerged about 1815 and affirmed self-interested acquisitiveness. Nemerov generally persuades in arguing that Raphaelle’s still lifes reveal a tendency toward the latter model. Yet his method also raises questions: can models of identity organized primarily around political and economic desires suffice as a dialectical framework for understanding selfhood—especially given early nineteenth-century Philadelphia’s diverse racial and ethnic population? Moreover, can the particular valences of early American social history be accommodated within the structuralist theory of embodiment that Nemerov adopts?

The Body of Raphaelle Peale is organized in three parts, the titles of which imply a Freudian structure: “Before,” “Beneath,” and “Birth.” Each section investigates a specific category of Raphaelle’s imagery. Part 1, “Before,” explores the “rhapsodic” and antisocial pleasure of objects that endures before the repression of infantile desire. In a refreshingly direct and focused approach, Nemerov immediately sets about explicating his thesis and centers his analysis on a single painting, Blackberries (ca. 1813). The four chapters that compose this section detail—in prose that matches Raphaelle’s own exacting execution—the berries’ curious animation, “overdescribed” surfaces, and proximity to the imaginary space of the artist/spectator. Drawing upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theory of “natural judgment,” which describes the inseparability of subject and objects in the precognitive state of infantile perception, Nemerov contends that Raphaelle’s blackberries index the realization of self as an entity in a field of objects. In its uncanniness, this picture marks the recovery of primal sensations of infancy and affirms the desire of the “possessive individual.”

The intimations of death embedded in Freud’s notion of the “return of the repressed” inform Nemerov’s analysis of two still lifes of meat in Part 2, “Beneath.” The title refers to contemporary anatomical discourses and images of dissection that, Nemerov convincingly argues, mediate Raphaelle’s depictions of a butchered steak and cut of veal. The seeming paradox of this section is that Raphaelle’s meat pictures show “nonidentity.” If Blackberries reveals a childlike refusal of republican selfhood, Nemerov explains, then the meat pictures not only signal a failure to “act the man,” as Charles Willson urged his son, but also nearly visualize Raphaelle’s fantasy of his own death.

Part 3, fittingly entitled “Birth,” employs the Freudian concept of the “maternal body” to characterize a third category of Raphaelle’s still lifes: those in which steak, corn, melons, and oranges suggest genital or breastlike imagery. Nemerov posits that these images contain the possibilities of rhapsody and nonidentity present within Raphaelle’s other works. He demonstrates his point—and ends his book—by arguing that the trompe l’oeil cloth that conceals a nude in Venus Rising from the Sea—A Deception (ca. 1822) protectively screens the artist’s vision from a body that is at once seductive goddess and abject monster.

Here, as throughout the book, Nemerov extends a welcome invitation to indulge in slow and careful looking: following his lead in the third section, we observe a leaf caress the skin of a peach; in Part 2, we see an onion that mimics a human tendon and asparagus stalks that resemble fingers. Occasionally, rhetorical brilliance, instead of persuasive analysis, carries an interpretation, such as a reading of a cabbage as Charles Willson’s head. And one yens to learn more about the material facture of Raphaelle’s paintings, a matter that takes a backseat to analysis of visual patterns and forms. In general, however, Nemerov produces startlingly original and engrossing interpretations.  The strength of his approach may be lodged in the book’s final footnote, in which the author discusses Emerson’s idea of understanding as a centrifugal process of drawing ever-widening circles. This concept matches the author’s own productive process of moving outward from Raphaelle’s still lifes to other artists’ pictures and archival documentation. Scholars of still-life painting may wish that this process traveled even further to engage the genre’s critical discourse fully or to situate Raphaelle within or against the history of European still life. But Nemerov’s frame of reference, as he notes in his introduction, is instead partly informed by recent writing about “the body.” Indeed, he concludes with the provocative assertion that Raphaelle was “the greatest American painter of the human body in his time” (201).

Finally, Nemerov does an excellent job of representing the complexity of early national Philadelphia’s visual culture. In addition to reinterpreting canonical images and reviving the contemporary significance of several now-obscure artists, he discards the conventional narrative of political art—in which American artists labor to help support the new republic—for an approach that reveals contesting ways of seeing and representing (“near” views and “primal seeing” compete with “long” views and “attenuated vision”). The result is a book that should interest all scholars of visuality. The Body of Raphaelle Peale puts American art history, and early American art in particular, into a vibrant dialogue with critical theory and the discipline at large.

Wendy Bellion
Professor and Sewell Biggs Chair in American Art History, Department of Art History, University of Delaware

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.