American Primitive Art: Robert Peckham (1830s-40s)



Figure 1.--This is a portrait of Charles Norton (1822- ). He was the son of Myron Norton and [Caroline?] Marsh Norton. The subject is painted bust-length turned slightly to the left, wearing a black suit with brass buttons, black stock, and flowered white vest. He is seated on a red upholstered chair. Oil on canvas. He looks to be a teenager about 15-17 years old. The portrait was probably painted around 1837. As was common with ante-bellum dresses, their are colord band on the lower skirt.

Robert Peckham (1785-1877) was a Deacon, a Radical Abolitionist and Temperance advocate. His work was largely ignored until art experts determined that several previously unatributed portraits were painted by Peckham. He is now considered to be one of the finest 19th century primitive artists. Not very many of his paintings have been found, but they are particularly detailed portraits, showcasing period fashions, toys, and houshold furnishings. We do not know why he did not do more such portraits. He clearly had natural skill, although he did not have any formal artistic training. Dale Johnson's work on 'The Children of Oliver Adams' led to the relization that several unattributed portraits were done by Peckham, including 'The Raymond Children', 'the Hobby Horse', 'Rosa Heyood', and 'Charles E. Eaton and His Sister'. Naive art is commonly unsigned, but is often attribued by art historians as aesult of documentation by the famikies of the subjects painted. The Peckham portraits are simukar to other naive work, but one art historian is struck by 'the arrting visual confrontation the eyes of the subjects make with the viewer'. And of course the attention to detail. [Johnson, p.27.] In addition to sylistic similarities, the individuals can be traced to the area around Worcester and Middlesex Massacusettes Counties where Peckham lived. And they can be dated to the 1830s-40s by the age of the subjects.

Robert Peckham

Robert Peckham (1785-1877) was a Deacon, a Radical Abolitionist and Temperance advocate. He was bor in Petersham, Massachusettes (1785). We know nothing about his childhood or family. But he was apparently paining by the time he reached is early 20s (1800s), but examples of his early work have not been found. As far as e know, he nevrr eceived any academic instruction. One art historiuan suggets that he may have had several months of instruction in portrait painting from Ethan Allen Greenwood, a schooled portraitist with whom he was acquinted. [Krashes] Peckham married Ruth Sawyer ho came from te nearby town of Bolton (1813). They at first lived in New Hampton, but moved to Bolton (1815) and then to Westminister (1820). Peckham lived an upright lif and became recognized as a responsible citizen within the community. He was appointed a deacon in the First Congregtional Church as served 14 years. He was an outspoken opponent of slavery and a supporter of the Abolitionist Movemnent. He was also a belkiever in temperance. He held anti-slavery meetings kin his home and at time it was used as a station for the Underground Railway, Abolition was a very contrvesial matter with strong opinions on both sides. Apparently other congrgates in Peckham's church did not agree with him on abolition or a least did no appreviate him forcefully expressing his opinion and aiding runaway slaves. It may have been the fact that aiding runaway slaves was a violation of the aw. . He steped down as deacon (1842). The church excommunicated him (1850). This was the the year Congress passed the Compromise of 1850 which strenghened fugative slave laws. Peckham returned to the church after Libcoln issued the Emanciptiopn Proclamation (1862).

Peckham's Art

Peckham's work was largely ignored until art experts determined that several previously unatributed portraits were painted by Peckham. Other period portraits have since been attributed to him. He is now considered to be one of the finest 19th century primitive artists. Not very many of his paintings have been found, but they are particularly detailed portraits, showcasing period fashions, toys, and houshold furnihings. He is believed to have made his living primarily from painting. He is known to have painted from 1809-50. He apparently established a reputation as a skilled painter and maid his living painting. One modern art historian describes his work as 'flat, hard and stiff'. [Opitz] There were few trained artists in early-19th century America. Thus this is now have contempraries have viewed his work. He is known to have painted John Greenleaf Whittier. Most of the surviving examples of his work date to the 1830s-40s. He clearly had natural skill, although he did not have any formal academic training. Peckham was not given much attention until an art historian working on the 'The Children of Oliver Adams' led to the relization that several unattributed portraits were done by Peckham, including 'The Raymond Children', 'the Hobby Horse', 'Rosa Heyood', and 'Charles E. Eaton and His Sister'. Naive art is commonly unsigned, but is often attribued by art historians as aesult of documentation by the famikies of the subjects painted. The Peckham portraits are simukar to other naive work, but one art historian is struck by 'the arrting visual confrontation the eyes of the subjects make with the viewer'. And of course the attention to detail. [Johnson, p.27.] In addition to sylistic similarities, the individuals can be traced to the area around Worcester and Middlesex, Massacusettes Counties where Peckham lived. And they can be dated to the 1830s-40s by the age of the subjects.

Attributed Portraits

We know of a handful of portraits painted by Peckham. Over time the number has increased. They were all groups or individuals from prosperous families tht could afford to pay well for them. Given his views, one might have thought he would have painted some portraits of the run away slaves he assisted. He seems to have liked to psint children, although the sample is too small to know for sure as other painings may be lost. The ones known to art historuand provide womderful views of children from prosperous families wearing conteporary fashions and set in home surrondngs. That is something that was lost when the development of photography. He did nit just paint children, but they are generlly considered his best work. None of these portraits are signed. Art historians, however, believe they are the work of Robert Peckham.

Adams Children (about 1831)

This Peckhan portrait is the children of Oliver Adams. The four Adams children are painted in their home in the Bolton area. The children are left to right: Joseph Sawyer (1828-31); Frances Anne (1824-38); Laura Ann (1826-97); and John Quincy (1830-37). Their father Oliver Adams was from Petersham . Their mother was Zilpah Sawyer (Peckham's sister-in-law) of Bolton. Joseph and Frances share a red ball. The children all wear very similar dresses done in bright colors., The dresses are low-cut top, baloon sleeves, high waists, and long skirts, almost covering their pantalettes. There are decorative colored bands near the ankle hem of the skirt. The major difference is color, yellow for the girls and red for the boys. Note tha rather than white pantalettes, the children wear pantalettes marching the color of their dresses. We suspect they were probably done in the same material. Rgw boys have sjort hair with side parts, although it is a bit difficult to tell in te case of Joseph. The girls have long uncurled hair wihbsharo center parts. The family details (births and death dates) were provided on the back ofthe portrait, including the previous two Olivers, who were painted posthumously by Peckham. This painting includes a post-mortem depiction of Joseph, whose death occasioned his Uncle Robert painying the portrait. The children stand to the right of a window and a dark nail-studded trunk with the in initials "O" (liver) "A"(dams) and to the left of a brown cradle.

The Raymond Children (1838)

Peckham's portrait of the Raymond children is held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The children look like boys as they both have short hair with side parts. The props help to identify the gender. The younger chikd has dog pull toy, these pull toys were popularcwith boy. The older child has a doll which with children this age suggests a girl. In this case we do not have to guess as we know who the children are. Anne Elizabeth Raymond (1832- ) and Joseph Estabrook Raymond (1834- ) were the children of Elizabeth Kendall and Joseph Raymond of Royalston, Massachusetts. Their father was a businessman active in local affairs, serving as town selectman, assessor, clerk, and representative to the state legislature. The children both married, Anne to John Low Choate of Boston (1860) and Joseph to Charlotte Louise Marshall of Fitchburg (1861). Peckham's style is forceful, relying on intense, saturated color, direct gazes, and his characteristic emphasis on the delineation of the forehead and mouth. This is some often absent in primitive art. He constructs a detailed environment for the children, who are surrounded by their toys within the family parlor, a document of 19th century furnishings. A wonderful view of a prosperous 1830s home. Anne wears yellow low cut dress with a high waistline, and slightly decorated pantalettes. Joseph boy wears a loosely fited ruffled collared shirt with a dark jacket or tunic and plain pantalettes. The mWe are not sure what terms woukd have been used at the time. aterial is the difference between pntaklettes and pants. They would have been about 4 yers and 6 years old, if the dates given are correct. Peckham painted them a little older.

The Hobby Horse

This naive portrait has been attributed to Robert Peckham, probably painted in the 1830s. As far as twe know, the children are not identified, but based on the hair styles are a girl (red dress) and boy (green dress). They certainly had a wonderful hobby horse, Notice it was a rocking horse without the safety features added in the late-19th century. Any boy would give his eye-tooth or a hobby horse like this one. Both children has lace or ruffled collars done with an open fit and wear pantalettes.

Rosa Heywood

The portrait if Rosa Heywood looks to be painted by Robert Peckham. She looks to be about 5 years old. As with most girls her hair is parted in the center. She wears a low-cut blue dress with high waist tht has a corset look. As was common with ante-bellum dresses, their are colord band on the lower skirt. It was a rather long dress, but pantalettles peek out at the hem.

E. Eaton and His Sister


Charles Norton (about 1837)

The teenager here is a portrait of Charles Norton (1822- ) (figure 1). He was the son of Myron Norton and [Caroline?] Marsh Norton. The subject is painted bust-length turned slightly to the left, wearing a black suit with brass buttons, black stock, and flowered white vest. Black was very popular for both boys and menb during the early-19th century. He is seated on a red upholstered chair. Oil on canvas. He looks to be a teenager about 15-17 years old. The portrait was probably painted around 1837. As was common with ante-bellum dresses, their are colord band on the lower skirt.

Farwell Children (1841)

Peckham is believed to have painted the Farwell children (about 1841). This was the year that baby Mary Jane (pictured in the carriage) died.

Sources

Johnson, Dale T. "Deacon Robert Peckham: 'Delineator of the Human Face Divine,'" American Art Journal Vol. 11, No. 1 (January 1979), pp. 27-36.

Krashes, David. "Robert Peckham: Unsung Rural Master," Folk Art.

Opitz.








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Created: 10:04 PM 2/23/2012
Last updated: 10:04 PM 2/23/2012