September 2, 2021, Augusta, Georgia, Rembrandt Peale, painting of the Court of Death

Today, people can buy a movie ticket and see death portrayed on the big screen.

In the 1820s, Augusta, they saw it displayed at the courthouse.

For much of April 1822, a huge painting, “The Court of Death”, by Rembrandt Peale, one of America’s first eminent artists, was proudly installed for display in the new hall. Augusta Town Hall audience.

Guests would pay 50 cents (and sometimes a dollar) to walk into a room and admire the life-size human figure of death in a 312-square-foot painting.

It was tall (24 feet by 13 feet). It was daring. It was, according to accounts of the time, “a sensation”.

The painting, with 23 figures, shows Death seated in his underground kingdom considering the fate of a body placed at his feet.

The other figures represent the different ways of dying. To quote a 1874 New York Times review: “Under the arm of death lean over pleasure, remorse and suicide, while nearby are forms depicting the various illnesses associated with a life devoted to satisfaction.” hobbies. “

In other words, the large painting was part art, part symbolism, and part Sunday school lesson.

To emphasize this point, Old Age (modeled by Peale’s famous artist father, Charles Willson Peale), is seen supported by a figure representing Faith.

The Chronicle of Augusta, perhaps unaccustomed to art or art criticism, suggested in its April 4, 1822 edition that viewers should judge for themselves “The Court of Death”.

“We have seen the picture but are not ready at this time to say anything about what we might think of as its merits or its drawbacks,” The Chronicle reported. “In the meantime, it will be observed that the editor-in-chief of Charleston Courier, whose taste is most exquisite, not only spoke of it in glowing terms, when the painting was in his town, but has hinted at it since his departure. “

It appears that Peale’s exhibitors started running paid advertisements in the newspaper, and four days later the newspaper suggested that customers go see him multiple times to enjoy his full experience.

“To take cognizance of an original image, made up of numerous figures, the fruit of numerous studies and reflections, it must be viewed more than once”, the newspaper indicated on April 8.

We don’t have local attendance figures, but we have an idea that it was very popular.

Elsewhere in the South, crowds gathered for Peale’s “Court of Death” tour, which grossed the artist $ 9,000 in 1822 (around $ 150,000 today).

Most viewings were said to only charge 50 cents, indicating that Augusta, which sometimes charged double, could have been considered a more lucrative venue.

The painting was considered a masterpiece and held an important place for decades.

Peale is best known today for his famous portraits of Founding Fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall and even John C. Calhoun.

He had a long and famous career before his death in Baltimore in 1860.

The old Augusta courthouse where his painting was displayed has also disappeared, demolished in the 1950s.

But the painting itself, a painting of death, still lives on.

The Detroit Institute of Arts acquired it in 1885 and, according to its website, it is still on display, nearly 200 years after his visit to Augusta.

Bill Kirby has reported, photographed and commented on life in Augusta and Georgia for 45 years.

About Edward Weddle

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