Charles Willson Peale, American
Oil on canvas
89 1/2 x 39 3/8 inches (227.3 x 100 cm)
The George W. Elkins Collection, 1945
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This lesson plan is adapted from the Philadelphia Museum of Art teaching poster set, Pennsylvania Art: From Colony to Nation, which will make its debut at a special workshop for teachers at the Museum on the evening of Friday, February 5, 2010. Admission to this event is free and limited to 100 teachers. To register for this workshop, call the Museum’s Ticket Center at (215) 235-7469 from 9:00 a.m. to 5:-00 [p.m. Monday through Friday, or stop by any Visitor Services Desk during Museum hours, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. There is a service charge of $3.00 ($2.50 for Museum members). There is no service charge for tickets purchased at the Museum.
Stepping into a PaintingArtists often invite us into their paintings so that we might imagine ourselves stepping inside the picture frame and experiencing it firsthand. Some painters take this invitation to another level by painting details with such precision that viewers are tricked into believing the objects, people, and setting are real. These highly realistic paintings, known as trompe l’oeil, provide an ideal opportunity for students to respond to art by assuming the roles and voices of the painted figures.
Stepping into a PaintingUses Charles Wilson Peale’s Staircase Group to enter a painting, imagine the characters and setting as real, and add to the experience with a poem allowing the student to become part of the work.
PA Academic Standards:Arts & Humanities: Aesthetic Response 9.4.B (Aesthetic Interpretation);
Historical 9.2.H (Pennsylvania Artists)
Language Arts: Reading, Analyzing and Interpreting Literature 1.3 (Poetry)
NJ Academic Standards:Language Arts: 3.1.12.G.10 (Identify and understand the author’s use of idioms, analogies, metaphors, and similes, as well as metrics, rhyme scheme, rhythm, and alliteration in prose and poetry.)
Visual Arts: 1.1.B (Aesthetics)
Grade Level:Language Arts, upper elementary and middle school
Art Images Required:This lesson requires only one art image from the Philadelphia Museum of Art Website (link below). The image is also available from ARTstor. Copying the search string below will direct you to the specific image from the ARTstor database.
- Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale), by Charles Willson Peale
- ARTstor search string: PMA_.E1945-1-1
Background:Two young men peer out at us from a curving staircase. They seem to invite us to walk right into this life-size painting and follow them upstairs! In fact, many viewers have been fooled into thinking these are real people standing in a real staircase. As a part of the trick, the painting is surrounded by a wooden doorframe instead of a picture frame, and an actual step projects out from the bottom. Even George Washington is believed to have tipped his hat to greet the young men when he first saw this work of art. Its fame has grown ever since. Charles Willson Peale, who painted Staircase Group in 1795, lived in Philadelphia and amazed people with his art. This painting shows two of his sons, Raphaelle (1774-1825) and Titian Ramsay (1780-1798). Raphaelle was an artist and therefore holds the tools of his trade: paintbrushes, a palette for mixing oil paints, and a maulstick, which artists use as a support for their wrist while painting fine details. Titian, with an inquisitive look on his face, points upward, suggesting there is more to see beyond the painted canvas. The boys wear typical 18th Century clothing—breeches, stockings, coats, and waistcoats. Peale painted Staircase Group so that the figures and setting appear to be real. How did he do it? Part of his strategy was to paint every detail with exact precision and hide his brushstrokes. Look at the steps at the bottom of the picture. Can you tell which part is wood and which part is painted imitation? The painted portion begins on the triangle-shaped step with the ticket; everything below that step is actual wood. Peale also used tricks of light and shadow to make the stairwell and figures look three-dimensional. For example, the top steps appear darker than the bottom steps, creating the sense that they are farther away. Light shines on the brothers’ faces as well as on Titian’s knee, which seems to project out of the painting. This highly realistic type of painting is known as trompe l’oeil (pronounced “tromp loy”), which means “fool the eye” in French.
- Ask if any students can remember looking at a photograph or painting and being fooled for a moment into thinking it was a real object. Discuss these examples briefly.
- Why might artists and photographers be interested in “fooling” their audience in this way? (Answers may include: as a means of showcasing their talents, to explore the limits of how we perceive things, or just for fun.)
- Extend this discussion by asking for examples of how poets and fiction writers also work to create a sense that their stories are real events. (Responses may be more common, as most fiction tries to present itself as actual events, with characters as realistically drawn people.) For the middle school student: This is typically referred to as a “willing suspension of disbelief.” Discuss this phrase as the partnership between writer and reader.
- Show the class the painting, Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale), by Charles Willson Peale
- ARTstor search code: PMA_.E1945-1-1
- Discuss student observations and reactions to the painting using as many of the following discussion questions as appropriate for your class:
- Where are these young men standing? How can you tell?
- What do you think they are doing? Where could they be going? What might happen next?
- Where are the brightest parts of the painting? Where are the shadows? What did you notice first? Then where did you look? What do you think drew your eye there?
- Imagine you could walk into the painting and follow the brothers upstairs. What do you think you might discover beyond the picture frame?
- Why do you think Peale painted his son Raphaelle walking up the steps, instead of down? What could the stairs symbolize?
- Notice the small piece of paper lying on the step. That is a detailed and exact painting of a ticket used to enter Peale’s Philadelphia museum. How does this detail add to Peale’s use of trompe l’oeil? (You can see one of Peale’s tickets here.)
- If Peale had been a poet rather than a painter, he would have drawn us into his reality with words rather than brushstrokes and colors. The following poetry exercise offers students a chance to use Peale’s sons to create their own sense of reality.
For more information, please contact Education: School & Teacher Programs by phone at (215) 684-7580, by fax at (215) 236-4063, or by e-mail at .