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.
Peale 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 records show that in 1813, Peale 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, Peale's paintings were exhibited at the Academy every year following until his death.
Still Life with Liqueur and Fruit demonstrates the resolute way Peale went about his art, with great attention to detail and sensitivity of composition. In the present work, Peale places the objects directly on a bare tabletop, a compositional device borrowed from James. The tabletop is parallel to the picture plane where the viewer can contemplate the formal order of the composition and the perfect meticulousness of form. As in most paintings by the artist, the still life elements are lit from the left. Light is captured flawlessly here in the decanter and the fluted glass. Peale captured highlights with accuracy rarely found in American still life painting; according to William H. Gerdts, this luminescence gives the glassware a transparency reminiscent of Caravaggio. He states: "In painting glass, the artist revels in the chance to demonstrate a virtuosity not afforded by more opaque objects...the lighting is usually what has been called the 'Peale' type; that is, in the background the light flows from right to left, while a raking light strikes the foreground objects from left to right. Although this lighting arrangement is rarely found in nature, it permits the artist to show as much texture and line as possible...There is little 'studied carelessness' in the work of any of the Peales, but specifically in the work of James and Raphaelle there is an almost surrealistic quietude..." (American Still Life Painting, New York, 1971, p. 31)
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 Still Life with Liqueur and Fruit a true tour de force of nineteenth century American still life painting.