The Easel and the Eagle: Rembrandt
Peale Views Napoleonic France

William L. Chew III, FINS


Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860), successful American portraitist and history painter, visited Napoleonic Paris three times, devoting the last two trips (1808, 1809-1810) to painting some two dozen portraits of noted contemporaries for the Gallery of Great Men of his father's Philadelphia museum. These trips have been studied by Peale's art historian biographers, given their impact on his career in painting.

 

Yet his first, 1806 trip, has been neglected, as insignificant in the formation of the artist. Peale however, drawing on this trip, published a series of letters in a respected contemporary magazine published in Philadelphia and New York, The Portfolio, which amply merit study for their assessment of Napoleon and his regime. In them, Peale attempts a balanced view of the man, his domestic and foreign policies, his probable legacy, as well as a comparison between the outgoing revolutionary France and the current Napoleonic regime. The implied point of reference is the American exceptionalist world view.

    

Napoleon is praised for restoring order out of chaos, establishing a sound legal code and administration, conciliating the Church, and re-instilling in society a respect for class and property. The price France had to pay, Peale maintained, was the loss of liberty. Thus, the Emperor is heavily censured for instituting a 'despotic' regime and shackling the press. Even more, he had turned France into a 'military establishment.' Were it not for the glories of his resounding victories, and the memories of thedismal days of Convention and Directory, Peale was convinced, the French would desert him.

 

William L. Chew III is Professor of History at Vesalius College, Brussels, where he has taught since 1987. He earned his PhD at the Eberhard-Karls Universität Tübingen in 1986 (magna cum laude) with a dissertation entitled “Das Leben in Frankreich zwischen 1780 und 1815, im Zeugnis amerikanischer Reisender.” He has continued his research activities in the domain of Franco-American social, cultural and political history of the 18th and 19th centuries, using travel writings as sources and applying the theoretical framework and methods of image studies. Chew has also published in the field of pedagogy and contributed to the academic debate on the Bologna Reform in history. His work has been published in journals such as French History, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, The History Teacher, Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht, Language and Intercultural Communication, Idioma, Journal of American Studies, Napoleonica La Revue and the Selected Papers of the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe. Standard reference books he has contributed numerous commissioned entries to include The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery and Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, and the forthcoming Encyclopedia of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era; Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia of Antislavery, Abolition, and Emancipation; and the Encyclopedia of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Chew has organized several international conferences for the Belgian Luxembourg American Studies Association. Two of these conferences have resulted in published essay collections, i.e. Images of America: Through the European Looking-Glass (Brussels: VUB University P, 1997) and National Stereotypes in Perspective: Americans in France–Frenchmen in America. (Rodopi Press: Amsterdam/Atlanta, 2001; Studia Imagologica– Amsterdam Studies in Cultural Identity 9). He is currently working on a book-length study on Thomas Jefferson’s travels in France from a social-cultural perspective, applying imagological principles. In his free time, “Dr Bill” writes songs and plays folk and blues guitar.