As one of the first artists in America to focus exclusively on still lifes, Raphaelle Peale is arguably the finest and most important painter of this genre in the nation's history. At a period when commissioned portraits were the foundation for artists working in America, only two members of the esteemed Peale family took up still life painting in earnest: Raphaelle and his uncle, James Peale. It was under their auspices that Philadelphia became the center of still life painting at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Dr. William H Gerdts writes of the present work: "The picture is a fine work by Raphaelle Peale, and bears the distinct qualities of his still-life art. Generally, as here, he signed on the front of the painting (his uncle, James, the only other professional still-life painter of works of this quality at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when he signed his paintings usually did so on the reverse). Likewise, James seems primarily to have painted on canvas; Raphaelle created a good number of pictures on panel, particularly smaller works such as the present one.
While Raphaelle's larger pictures are usually combinations of a number of fruits, some of smaller works concentrate on a single fruit or edible, such as cheese, blackberries, peaches, or oranges, as here. The objects are always placed on a 'ledge'-one is never sure if it is a table, a board, a shelf. In all cases the backgrounds are neutral-either all dark or, as here, divided into a dark and light area, with very little penumbra between these areas.
One of the most intriguing aspects about Rapahelle Peale's still lifes is their conformation to the standards of neoclassicism, despite the fact that neoclassic theory championed moralistic history painting and considered still life of little significance. But-and unlike the objects in his uncle's paintings-Raphaelle's objects, especially the fruit, are not only very carefully painted, but in prime state of condition, with little suggestion of aging and often geometrically 'perfect' as the round half orange here.
Furthermore, and also very classical, is the balance of forms. The orange, for instance is a perfect circle, which is then repeated in the curling of the peel which replicates it. The branch of raisins parallel the diagonal of the knife, and both of these are at an exact right angle to the position of the book. This is neoclassic structure.
Oranges appear in a fair number of Peale's still lifes. The orange may have been chosen in Raphaelle Peale's still life to suggest affluence, since, unlike apples for instance, they are a tropical fruit; however, there were a number of large hothouses in Philadelphia at the time which grew oranges and lemons so they would not have really been rarities. This particular treatment of the orange, halved, can be seen both as part of a larger composition-Still Life with Orange, in the Toledo Museum of Art, and a very similar picture, also entitled Orange and Book, but without the raisins and knife. (Both of these are also on panel). Peale exhibited an Orange and Book at the annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1815, and at the annual of 1817, he showed a Still Life-Book and Orange Since [the present work] is annotated as painted for the Reverend Dr. Abercrombie, it presumably is neither of the two that were shown at the Pennsylvania Academy which were presumably for sale. However, the dates of 1815 and 1817 suggest the approximate dating for [the present work], I would think. Reverend James Abercrombie (1758-1841) was the rector of St. Peter's Church in Philadelphia. The painting descended to his son, Charles Stedman Abercrombie; then to his daughter, Mrs. Eleanor Abercrombie Jackson, and then to her nephew, Trafford Hills in 1963. Mr. and Mrs. Trafford Hills owned the painting as late as 1983, when the work was known as Orange and Book # 2, Book of Common Prayer. It's a very nice example of Raphaelle Peale's work, with an interesting provenance." (unpublished letter, April 13, 2013)
Raphaelle Peale led a relatively short life, yet he managed to produce a body of still life paintings that has seldom been equaled in sensitivity of composition. Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr. writes: "...of all the Peales, he was the truest and greatest artist. He had the finest artistic sensibility and intelligence, and despite his lack of self-confidence and ambition, he was artistically the most daring. In the end his art had the most lasting influence as well." (Raphaelle Peale Still Lifes, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 33) Cikovsky comments on the existing works of the artist: "...as difficult as it might be to believe it of paintings of such delicacy and reticence or of an artist of such apparently modest ambition, they seem to have addressed the artistic issues of their time more intelligently, subtly, and -- certainly in terms of their quality -- more successfully than did the work of any of his contemporaries." (Raphaelle Peale Still Lifes, p.54) It has been estimated that Raphaelle Peale may have painted as many as one hundred and fifty still lifes, of which approximately fifty have survived. It is this rarity combined with exquisite detail and sensitivity of composition that make Orange and Book a true tour de force of nineteenth century American still life painting.
We wish to thank William H. Gerdts, Professor Emeritus of Art History, Graduate School of the City University of New York for his assistance with the cataloguing of this lot.