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Currants and Biscuits

Currants and Biscuits
signed and indistinctly dated 'Peale 1813' (lower right)
oil on panel
7 1/2 x 10 1/2 in. (19.1 x 26.7 cm.)
Painted in 1813.
John B. Williams, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Joanne L. Sikes, granddaughter of the above, by descent.
Estate of the above.
Sotheby's, New York, 28 November 2007, lot 186, sold by the above.
Acquired by the late owner from the above.

Brought to you by

Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art

Lot Essay

As one of the first artists to focus primarily on still lifes, Raphaelle Peale is arguably the finest and most important painter of this genre in the nation's history. Only two members of the esteemed Peale family—Raphaelle and his uncle, James Peale—took up still life painting in earnest at a period when commissioned portraits were the foundation for artists working in America. Scholars estimate Raphaelle Peale painted as many as one hundred and fifty still lifes, of which approximately only fifty survive. This rarity, combined with the exquisite detail and sensitivity of composition, make Currants and Biscuits a supremely important tour de force of nineteenth-century American painting.

Despite being younger than his uncle James, Raphaelle is considered to be the first American still life painter. He trained at a young age under his father Charles Willson Peale—joining painting trips, executing exhibition backgrounds and replicating dioramas for Charles’ natural history museum. Raphaelle began to exhibit his paintings at the Columbianum exhibition of 1795, attempting to make his living in the respected area of portraiture. Ultimately he shifted his interest to still life painting and in 1813, exhibited a large number of still lifes for the first time at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where his paintings won critical acclaim. With the exception of 1820 and 1821, his paintings were exhibited at the Academy every year for the rest of his life. Charles Willson praised his son’s still life paintings: “Your pictures of still-life are acknowledged to be, even by the Painters here, far exceeding all other works of that kind—and you have often heard me say that I thought with such talents of exact immitation [sic] your portraits ought also to be more excellent” (as quoted in Raphaelle Peale Still Lifes, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 104)

Among Peale’s favorite subjects were refined and expensive delicacies, such as the raisin cakes depicted in the present work as well as Still Life with Cake (1818, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Still Life with Wine Cake and Nuts (1819, The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California). A similar cake was sold by Mrs. Elizabeth Goodfellow, whose Philadelphia shop was located down the street from Raphaelle’s family home. As a result, Currants and Biscuits is not only an accomplished work of early American still life, but also a window into the culinary developments in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia.

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) A magnificent example of the artist's oeuvre, Currants and Biscuits captures the intricate detail and delicacy of the artist’s best subjects.

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