As a solution to the problem of composition and context, “The Night Watch” by Rembrandt was a brilliant consolidation of a given number of figures into a group portrait and, under the conditions of this particular assignment, seems to have been satisfactory to his clients who commissioned it. As a group portrait it contrasts dramatically with that of the Peale family group, to which the drama and monumentality of “The Night Watch” would have been out of place.
Family subjects demand intimacy instead of dramatic excitement and the expression of psychological interplay between individuals whose lives are bound together in closed quarters. But, like Rembrandt Peale relays psychological values in his subjects through the art of composition.
Peale began work on his group portrait about 1773. Nine of the people in the picture are members of his family by birth or by marriage. The tenth is a matriarchal family nurse who stands in the background, hands folded with all the majesty of a great natural monument. Argus, the dog, was left to the Peale’s by a grateful old Revolutionary soldier who pulled him out from under his blouse in return for a free meal.
The Revolution had come and gone since Peale began the picture. For many years he kept it unfinished in his studio as a sort of demonstration piece. The work was finally completed in 1809, thirty-six years after it was begun. In the painting, Peale appears as a young man of thirty-two, standing to the left side, holding a palette and bending over to inspect a drawing on which his brother, St. George Peale is working.
The intention of the picture is not complicated: an ideal facade of family life that is informal, affectionate and secure. A glance at the Peale family shows that the ten people in it are happily united as a group disposed to share the limelight without competing for it.
Compositionally, to avoid massing and monotony there are two groups presented, halves united by a slight overlapping and by a scattering of fruit across the table, a somewhat trivial detail , yet important in binding the two groups together. Also, St. George sketching his mother presents a play of interest across the breadth of the picture that is psychologically effective and negates any feeling of disunity that might arise by the physical division of the two groups.
Within this family knit composition each figure is pleasantly varied.We are conscious of each one as an individual, but we cannot look long at one without being led to another. ( to be continued)…