Paintings of scriptural subjects were well suited to the cultural ambitions of the artists and art patrons of the new nation. They belonged to the category of history painting, traditionally regarded in European art circles as representative of the highest artistic achievements and worthy of the efforts of the most gifted artists. Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), first President of England’s Royal Academy, recommended “scripture histories” as subjects “in which men are universally concerned, and which powerfully strike upon the publick sympathy.”
For those Americans suspicious of the arts as objects of luxury, religious subject matter legitimized painting as a serious and benign endeavor. Artists created scriptural narratives, scripturally related allegories, and evocations of events central to religious practice and freedom. These paintings were produced in small formats for domestic interiors and as large dramatic canvases for galleries and popular, profit-making public exhibitions. Although commissions from churches were rare, the United States government commissioned two monumentally scaled oil paintings associated with religious practice for the important national project of decorating the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. These were Robert Weir's "Emarkation of the Pilgrims at Delft Haven in 1620 (1843) and John Gadsby Chapman's "Baptism of Pocahontas, 1613" (1840).
Section Two, painting label:
Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), Elisha Restoring to Life the Shunamite’s Son, after Benjamin West, 1767. Watercolor on paper mounted on canvas; 16 x 24 inches. Private Collection
Charles Willson Peale was one of the earliest students of Benjamin West (1738-1820), the Pennsylvania born artist, who became the second President of England’s Royal Academy. West’s professional generosity and his artistic and financial success made him a model for aspiring American artists. He also demonstrated a dedication to history painting as the road to artistic distinction. The rebirth of interest in religious art in 18 th-century England reached its peak in the work of West.
Peale made this copy of West’s larger 1766 work in the artist’s London studio. The subject shows Elisha, a mediator to the faithful for divine salvation and God’s blessings, in an act of miraculous healing. (II Kings 4:18-37) Peale hung the painting in his Philadelphia museum. ohn Adams reported seeing the subject as a wax work in Philadelphia during the summer of 1777.
Although Peale is not typically associated with religious images, he painted two other scripture paintings for the museum, his Noah and the Ark (1819), after Charles Catton (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) and his 8 x 6 foot, Our Savior Healing the Sick at the Pool of Bethesda (1821; unlocated) copied from an engraving after the work of German artist, Christian Dietrich (1712-1774).
Section Two, book, pamhlet & broadside labels:
John Robinson, A Description of, And Critical Remarks on the Picture of Christ Healing The Sick in the Temple; Painted by Benjamin West, Esq. And Presented by Him to the Pennsylvania Hospital. Philadelphia: S. W. Conrad, 1818. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
John Robinson, A Description of, and critical remarks on the picture of Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple, Painted by Benjamin West; and Presented by Him to the Pennsylvania Hospital. Philadelphia: S.W. Conrad for the Pennsylvania Hospital, 1818. LCP
West’s Painting. Description of the Picture, Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple, Painted by Benjamin West, Esq. And Presented by the Author to the Pennsylvania Hospital. Philadelphia: James Webster, 1817. Illustrated with line drawing after West by Thomas Sully. LCP
West’s large scriptural exhibition pictures of his last decade gained him his greatest public popularity and financial rewards. Their union of pious sentiment and visual affect made them effective pictorial sermons. Among these works was his replica of his 1811 Christ Healing the Sick which he donated to Pennsylvania Hospital in 1817. The original had been destined for the hospital prior to its purchase by London’s British Institution for, reputedly, “the most money ever paid to an artist for a single work of art.” But, as West predicted, the Philadelphia painting also resulted in significant ongoing income for the hospital. Installed in a special building, individual tickets to view the painting cost 25 cents and non-transferable “life-tickets” $10. The subject of the 10 x 15-foot work was a peaceful, warm testament to the wonder of divine healing. (Matthew 21: 14,15). In short, the painting functioned as a cultural treasure produced by a native son, a source of income, a pictorial sermon, and an institutional mission statement for the hospital where it remains on display.
Washington Allston, The Dead Man Restored to Life by Touching the Bones of the prophet Elisha, 1811-1814. Oil on canvas, 156 x 120 inches. Reproduction courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Washington Allston (1779-1843) is considered America’s first Romantic painter. He studied with West at the Royal Academy for 3 years and then spent four years in Italy before returning to Boston. In London again between 1811-1818, he painted The Dead Man Restored to Life (II Kings: 9). The British Institution awarded the painting a monetary prize, but did not seek to acquire it. Instead, the Pennsylvania Academy mortgaged its building to purchase it. Praised for its intelligent adaptation of the Italian masters and the antique, it served as a model of artistic expertise for the Academy’s students. Its display also offered an example of the pictorial and spiritual sublime in which the subject was a stunning and inexplicable moment of divine encounter.
Exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Mr. Allston’s Picture Of the Dead Man restored to Life by touching the bones of the Prophet Elisha, Size of the Picture 13 feet by 11. Philadelphia, 1816. Broadside. Reproduction courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
W. Byrne after P.J. De Loutherbourg, The Ascent of Elijah (II Kings, 2) In: The Holy Bible, London: Thomas Macklin, 1800. Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.
The desire of the English publisher Thomas Macklin to produce a bible that was also a “great book” led to the publication of a handsomely produced six volume bible illustrated by the country’s most notable history painters. Of its seventy-one engraved plates, twenty-one were the work of Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, R.A. (1740-1812), a London stage designer and master of early romantic scenic effects. According to Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860), a son of Charles Willson Peale and an ambitious portraitist and history painter, the de Loutherbourg illustration seen here served as the direct source for his large exhibition picture, The Ascent of Elijah, 1814-15. Contemporary reviews document Peale’s transformation of his monochrome model into a painting of “brilliant effect” praised for its gradations of light and color, “the fiery crimson” of the clouds, and “the vivid brightness” of the chariot.
Elijah’s ascent into heaven in a “chariot of fire” was interpreted as the spiritual transformation of the mortal soul taken into the mystery of the Holy Spirit which Christians interpreted as a pre-figuration of Christ. As a prophet, Elijah had condemned social injustice and admonished men to repent before the day of judgment. Elijah hurls his mantle down to his successor, Elisha, at the lower left. During this time of religious revival in America, preachers often admonished their listeners to “pick up the mantle of Elijah” and, like Elisha, “spread the word.”
Christ Rejected was one of William Dunlap’s (1766-1839) several biblical exhibition pictures based on the work of his teacher, West. Touring his pictures through the northeast and south in 1820's at a time when church membership was growing rapidly, he had a ready audience. His venues ranged from the galleries of art institutions to rural churches and court-houses. Along with oil portraits and miniatures, Dunlap also painted religious subjects on a small scale. A central figure in the New York art world Dunlap is known for his three volume History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (1834), in which he described the relationship between West and Allston in biblical terms. “The mantle of Elijah,” he said, “has fallen on the shoulders of Elisha.”
Section Two, labels for framed prints:
A.B. Walter (1820-1875) after John Martin, Belshazzar’s Feast. Engraving; 25 1/2 x 32 1/4 inches. Philadelphia: J.C. McCurdy & Co., c. 1840.
The English history painter John Martin (1789-1854), acknowledged that the subject of his 1821 Belshazzar’s Feast (Daniel 5:25) was suggested to him by Washington Allston. Although Allston’s very different conception of the subject remained unfinished, Martin’s work met with vast popular success. He made five replicas of it in various sizes, and it was engraved numerous times in England and in America. A version of the painting toured the States from the 1820's into the 1850's. The subject of a king dramatically called to account for his unwillingness to compensate his people for the abuses of his father’s rule while he also valued silver and gold over reverence for God, was well-suited to a melodramatic pictorial sermon. It allowed Martin to revel in his favorite imagery, the vastness, darkness, complexity and chaos of the romantic sublime. Whether seen as an oil painting, a small print in a gift book, or a large, handsome print like the one seen here, such images helped define the nature and experience of art for Americans.
Sarony, Major and Knapp after Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860), The Court of Death, 1820. Chromolithograph; 23" x 32". (G. Q. Colton, New York, 1859). Private collection.
Rembradnt Peale's next exhibition picture, The Court of Death, was not a scriptural narrative but rather was based on a well-known poem by the bishop of London, a committed social reformer. Peale described the painting as a “real allegory” with figures adapted from the work of European masters that were designed to “speak the sentiment required of them.” If his sources might only be recognized by a cultivated minority, his message was the essence of the “democratic gospel” preached during this period of intense religious revival, known as the “Second Great Awakening” (1795-1835). Theological shifts favored a belief in one's ability to shape one's own spiritual destiny rather than being subject to Calvinistic pre-determinism.
Peale illustrated an assortment of “sinful” behaviors to be avoided and represented Faith and Hope supporting the aged figure to the right of the shrouded image of Death. Having led a moral life, he had no fear in the face of death.
This picture, with its broad non-denominational message, was the most successful exhibition picture of its time. It was recommended from pulpits and visited by school, church and civic groups. Its intense emotional tenor and dark tonality link it to the aesthetic of the romantic sublime. But its aim of evoking what Peale called “a salutary fear” in the viewer also linked it to the contemporary “religion of the heart” which regarded the emotional experience of religion as the only proof of genuine faith and hence salvation.
Section Two, labels for books and pamphlets:
Beilby Porteus, Death: a poetical essay. Philadelphia: Robert Bell, 1773.
Beilby Porteus’s (1732-1809) poem, Death : A Poetical Essay (1759) was published early in his long and active career. An Anglican clergyman and leader in humanitarian reform, he was active in the establishment of Sunday schools, church missionary societies and the British and Foreign Bible Societies. An outspoken opponent of slavery, he was an anti-Calvinist who supported a religion of the heart. Porteus’s writings were popular in America and went through many editions. Death appeared as an independent pamphlet but was also included in larger publications. Over the years it reached a diverse audience. The copy displayed here was owned by Dr. Benjamin Rush; another copy in a local collection was inscribed as a Sunday school prize in 1819.
Rembrandt Peale, Description of the Court of Death; an Original Painting by Rembrandt Peale, Baltimore: J. Robinson, 1820. LCP
In the first of numerous exhibition pamphlets that would accompany the painting over its long exhibition history, Peale offered viewers an explanation of the theme and imagery of his painting.
The Court of Death, painted by Rembrandt Peale. Philadelphia: after 1846. Gratz Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
References in this pamphlet suggest it was produced after 1846. In this edition Peale provided interpretation as well as detailed information about the painting’s successful reception by the public. He states that it is “well worth the attention of every Lover of the Fine Arts, as well as of all persons of Taste, and the Friends of Good Morals.”
Peale’s Court of Death, 100,000 Splendid Colored Engravings. Advertisement for chromolithograph after the painting. Independent, Philadelphia, December 1, 1859. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
By 1859 Peale had sold his 13 x 23 foot picture to an independent exhibitor who published a chromolithograph of the painting. This provided the painting with an even wider exposure and allowed purchasers to bring Peale’s “sermon on canvas” into their homes.
At The Saloon of The Adelphia. Now Exhibiting The Opening of the Sixth Sea, A Grand Pictures, by F. Danby, R.A. The Late property of William Beckford, Esq. of Fonthill Abbey. A Powerful and Sublime Illustration of one of the Most Striking Passages of Holy Writ. Philadelphia: 1832. LCP.
Irish born Francis Danby’s (1793-1861) millennial scene from Revelations 6:12 illustrating “the great day of God’s wrath” won an award of 300 guineas from the British Institution and sold for a record price. While the painting was touring America, it was illustrated in a very small and less terrifying context of the gift book The Token (Boston, 1832). In Philadelphia season tickets were sold to visitors who wanted to repeat their exposure to the biblical spectacle. On the back of the exhibition pamphlet viewers were offered an opportunity to subscribe to “a superb engraving” of Danby’s work.
For a Short Time Only. Now Exhibiting, in the Saloon of the Masonic Hall, Chestnut Street, The Two Grand Moral Pictures, The Temptation of Adam and Eve, and The Expulsion From Paradise. Painted by Dubufe. Philadelphia: 1834. LCP.
Claude Marie Dubufe (1790-1864) was a successful French history painter, portraitist, and genre painter. His paintings of Adam and Eve, executed for Charles X of France before he was deposed in 1830, became enormously successful exhibition pictures in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Augusta, Savannah and New Orleans. They were defended as moral works but, as William Dunlap noted, the subject of Adam & Eve, in their state of nudity, was always a biblical subject people would flock to see. One New York critic characterized them as “splendid in their licentiousness.” The paintings were copied by the American artist, John Beale Bordley (1800-1882) who exhibited them until at least 1840.
Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., after Richard Westall, R.A., The Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch. Isaiah, Chap. XI. Ver.6. The Holy Bible. Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1823. LCP
This Philadelphia bible contains engravings copied from the illustrations used in the multi-volume bible published by Charles Heath in London in 1815. This illustration, as seen in the Heath bible, has been credited as the visual source for the Peaceable Kingdom imagery used by the American Quaker preacher and naive painter, Edward Hicks (1780-1849) in his numerous renditions of the subject. It seems more likely, however, that Hicks would have encountered Richard Westall’s image in one of its many re-uses in American bibles. Because of cost or availability many American bible publishers re-used, purchased, or borrowed engraved plates. Often, as in this case, they had images copied. With a large market for bibles, most of which needed to be moderately priced, images like this one often enjoyed wide distribution.
Edward Hicks (1780-1849), The Peaceable Kingdom, 1829-1830, oil on canvas, 17 5/6" x 23 5/8" Reproduction courtesy of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware.
After three months the Academy recorded selling 3,561 tickets for this exhibition of forty-six religious paintings. It included West’s Christ Healing the Sick, Christ Rejected, and Death on a Pale Horse, as well as Allston’s Dead Man Restored to Life, Benjamin Haydon’s Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem and Daniel Huntington’s Early Christians at Rome. Thomas Sully’s copy of The Tribute Money after Rubens was displayed along with Old Master religious pictures from the Academy’s collection, several of which had recently been donated by Paul Beck. Among the lenders to the exhibition were Philadelphia collectors James McMurtrie, Charles Graff, C.G. Childs, H.C. Carey and Edward L. Carey.
The Picture of the Baptism of Pochahontas. Painted by order of Congress, for the Rotundo of the Capitol, by J.G. Chapman, of Washington. Washington, D.C.: Peter Force, 1840.
John Sartain after Thomas Pritchard Rossiter, Miriam in The Rev. Hastings Weld, Women of the Scriptures. Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1848. LCP
Section Two, painting labels:
Peter Rothermel, David Playing the Harp before Saul, 1852-3. Oil on canvas, 44 3/4" x 52 3/4 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of Florence Foerderer Tonner in memory of her parents, Robert H. Foerderer and Caroline Fisher Foerderer to the Lutheran Church of America.
The young David, anointed by the prophet, Samuel, was handsome, gifted and filled with the spirit of the Lord. A skilled musician, he was called upon to soothe the troubled spirit of King Saul. Rothermel’s asymmetrical composition with its expressively drawn figures, rich color and deep contrasts of light and dark moves beyond the simple illustration of a biblical incident. Working for a scripturally literate audience Rothermel crafted an image that foreshadowed the dramatic story beginning to unfold between the two men, in which David would ultimately become Saul’s royal successor. Known for the theatrical flair of his compositions Rothermel’s paintings of religious subjects ranged from scriptural illustrations to imaginative re-creations of religious history.
Emmanuel Leutze (1816-1868), The Iconoclast, 1847. Oil on canvas; 38" x 32". Private collection.
Despite the large scale of many of his works, such as his famous Washington Crossing the Delaware (begun 1849), Emmanuel Leutze humanized history painting through his genre-like approach to events and his ability to create the effect of an eyewitness account. The Iconoclast shows an English Puritan reformer about to shatter the shrine at which his Catholic daughter has been praying. His angry expression and his powerful gestures of violence and control function as metaphors for the larger religious conflict that played out between Protestants and Catholics in English society. Always alert to links between his subject matter and contemporary political and social issues, Leutze’s dramatization of the shattering of familial bonds spoke to the tragedies that could be provoked by contemporary religious intolerance. Purchased by the American Art-Union in 1850, it was engraved by Alfred Jones for the large, luxurious gift book, Ornaments of Memory in 1854.
Section Two, book labels:
John Cheney after Daniel Huntington, Mercy’s Dream. In The Gift. Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1843.
Daniel Huntington’s (1816-1906) painting Mercy’s Dream (1841) was the most successful work of his career. The subject is based on an incident in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim's Progress (1678). This Protestant classic of Christian perseverance was second only to the bible in popularity at mid-century. Huntington evokes a visionary scene in which Mercy, a gentle, idealized female, is visited by an angel who reveals to her the presence of God. Widely copied and engraved, this picture and its companion piece, Christiana and Her Children in the Valley of the Shadow of Death (1842-44) rivaled Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life in popularity and visibility throughout the 1840's.
Alfred Jones after Peter Rothermel, Murray's Defense of Toleration, steel engraving. Frontispiece, Bulletin of the American Art-Union, New York, September 1, 1851.
The subject of this engraving after Rothermel’s large picture, exhibited in Philadelphia and New York in 1850 and purchased by the American Art-Union in 1851, is religious tolerance. The artist has chosen to dramatize an incident from Sir Walter Scott’s History of Scotland in which Mary Queen of Scots’ right to celebrate the Catholic mass is defended by the Protestant Earl of Murray. Murray, sword in hand, intervenes between and an incensed Presbyterian minister. The frail woman with a sick child suggests that the passions of those who are truly following the lessons of scripture should be directed to tending this needy pair rather than protesting differences in worship. The tensions between Protestants and Catholics in America during the 1840's, which resulted from the large influx of Catholic immigrants, was the contemporary reality underlying this historic drama.