Ruth Carter Stevenson was president of the board of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art for more than 50 years, and since her death in January 2013, those associated with the museum had been looking for a way to honor her leadership.
They searched for the perfect painting.
“We had looked at a whole range of floral still lifes, as she loved gardening and flowers,” says Rebecca Lawton, the Carter’s curator of paintings and sculpture, but nothing they found seemed quite right.
Lawton thought that the best thing would be a Raphaelle Peale still life, but that seemed an impossibility. The last time one came to market was in 2009, Lawton says, and it was purchased by Alice Walton in her buying frenzy before the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.
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But almost exactly a year after Stevenson’s death, Lawton found the perfect tribute at the Winter Antiques Fair in New York City: an 1813 still life by Peale.
The painting, Peaches and Grapes in a Chinese Export Basket, had been owned by a family and passed down through its generations. But in 2012, it was offered for sale by a Philadelphia dealer for just over $1 million.
“It was like divine intervention,” Lawton said. “These never come on the market, and there it was.”
The lovely painting of fruit in a porcelain bowl “is perfect for the [Carter] collection as Raphaelle Peale formed the foundation of American still life painting, and he is arguably a painter who has yet to be surpassed,” Lawton said.
“I think Mrs. Stevenson would be very happy to know this is in the collection. She felt so strongly about still life painting, and her two loves, art and horticulture, are commingled here.”
Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825) came from a family of painters. His father, Charles Wilson Peale, and brother Rembrandt Peale were successful portrait painters. The 17 Peale children were named for artists and scientists. Brothers Rubens and Titian were also noted artists.
Raphaelle, though, is the Peale to collect. During his lifetime, there were few buyers for still lifes, but sales of portraits of wealthy burghers and heroes of the American Revolution were brisk, and the Peales who specialized in portraits had a secure income. Raphaelle did not have the social skills for portraiture and preferred to meticulously paint inanimate objects.
He was ill for all of his adult life, and his output was limited.
“Only about 50 of these still lifes have survived,” Lawton said. Now, Peale is considered the first professional American still life painter, and the value of his work is considerably higher than that of his siblings or his father.
Peaches and Grapes in a Chinese Export Basket has been cleaned and varnished. It will be placed in the first gallery of the museum, the one with the portrait of Stevenson. Later it will move in with the Carter’s other still lifes.
The painting will go on exhibit Tuesday.