This post was written by Mindy N. Besaw, curator, American art and director of fellowships and research. In the photo above (right) the author visits the painting with proper PPE.
Isolation. Quarantine. Epidemic. These are terms that are common today. But even during times of social distancing, many of us try to maintain some sense of normalcy—such as sharing a family portrait online.
The relaxed air of the three well-dressed women who posed for their portrait in The Ramsay-Polk Family at Carpenter’s Point, Cecil County, Maryland by James Peale, masks the environment of uncertainty and exile of their time. The artist, along with other members of Philadelphia’s elite families, fled Philadelphia during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic.
With a population of approximately 55,000 in 1793, Philadelphia was America’s largest city. It was also the nation’s capital and busiest port. Philadelphia’s medical community was baffled by the means of transmission of yellow fever. After the first fatalities, Dr. Benjamin Rush, the city’s leading doctor (and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence), advised citizens to flee Philadelphia. The fever claimed an estimated 5,000 lives in only a few months—nearly 10% of the population.
The site of this painting is Carpenter’s Point, Maryland, on the northwest shore of the Chesapeake Bay and the women were in-law relatives of James Peale’s deceased sister. The tiny scene in the background shows the bustling shad and herring fishery owned by Peale’s brother-in-law, Nathaniel Ramsay. Nathaniel’s wife, Charlotte, is dressed in the pink gown and gestures toward the fishery. Charlotte’s sister, Mrs. Heath, stands next to her, wearing a blue dress. The seated woman is Ruth Ellison Polk, the wife of James’s nephew and artist Charles Peale Polk. Nothing in The Ramsay-Polk Family portrait suggests unrest, instead, the hills are lush and green, business is booming, and the ladies lounge in the latest fashions. In fact, this is one of James Peale’s most accomplished paintings.
For the artist, Maryland must have offered a welcomed country respite for isolation away from the diseased city. But not all members of the Peale family were able to avoid yellow fever. James’s brother and fellow artist, Charles Willson Peale (whose portrait of George Washington is also found in the Crystal Bridges collection) stayed in Philadelphia during the epidemic. Charles’s wife, Betsy DePeyster, became sick, but Charles nursed her back to health.
Family portraits tend to be celebratory—marking accomplishments and concealing difficulties. Certainly, one role of art is to uplift, especially in difficult times.
This post was written by Mindy N. Besaw, curator, American art and director of fellowships and research.