With his customary candor, Peale presents the imposing head of one of the most notable men of his era. By turns lawyer, journalist, man of commerce, political radical, poet, diplomat, and proponent of a national university, Joel Barlow (1754–1812) filled his place in Federal America as authoritatively as his head fills the oval format of this portrait.1For the date and early provenance of the portrait, see Sellers 1952, no. 19, 26–27; and Sellers 1969, 53. In the 1854 sale, the buyer was identified only as “Ogden.” He is here assumed to be Charles Smith Ogden (born in 1822, still alive in 1898), who in 1896 presented to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania two other pictures purchased by “Ogden” at the Museum sale. The possibility remains, however, that his long-lived father, John Melchior Ogden (1791–1882), was the first buyer.
After graduation from Yale and service as a chaplain in the Revolutionary army, he founded a newspaper in Hartford, Connecticut. He was one of the so-called “Connecticut Wits,” a group of literary aspirants whose writings were mostly satirical.
From the age of thirty-four until he was fifty-one, Barlow lived abroad (1788–1805), first in London, where he was an intimate of Thomas Paine, then in Paris, where he was given French citizenship, and briefly, in Algiers. Before leaving for this expatriation, Barlow had written a long and ambitious poem, The Vision of Columbus (1787). After his return to America, he published a revised, and still more pretentious, version, which he retitled Columbiad (1807).
The production of this volume brought Barlow to Philadelphia. Published in November 1807, it was “the most beautiful book yet manufactured in America.” According to the Edinburgh Review, “The infant republic has already attained to the very summit of perfection in the mechanical part of bookmaking.” During his residence in Philadelphia, Joel Barlow sat to Charles Willson Peale for his portrait (probably begun February 24 and finished by April 8). Peale, incidentally, put the newly published quarto into his Philadelphia museum “and reported two or three months later that visitors called for it so often that he was afraid his copy would be damaged.”2Woodress, 247; Sellers 1952, 27; and Woodress, 247.
Peale’s unfailing empathy for his fellow citizen in the new Republic is surely evident here. Above a jaunty cravat, the broad, intelligent head is painted with convincing bulk, to which the spontaneous brushwork of the tousled hair offers a splendid contrast. Such freedom is increasingly characteristic of Peale’s painting after 1800, his late style. The portrait was destined for Peale’s Museum.3The frame for this painting and the one for the portrait of Robert Fulton, painted concurrently, were made by James Peale, Charles’s younger brother. According to Lillian B. Miller (letter to Clement E. Conger, December 18, 1985, Curatorial Files, Diplomatic Reception Rooms), the portrait of Joel Barlow is still in its original frame: “The simplicity of the frame indicates quite clearly that this was a Museum portrait.”
By 1808, Barlow had retired from public life and was living in Washington, D.C., at “Kalorama,” that is, “beautiful view.” (“Kalorama” is to be seen in Acc. No. 72.13.) His advice on public matters was much sought, but when President Madison, his good friend, requested him to undertake a mission to France, he was reluctant to interrupt his honored retirement. The mission’s purpose was to consolidate Franco-American relations at a time when America and Great Britain were on the verge of hostilities, owing to the harassment of American shipping, though both French and English decrees and blockades aimed mainly at one another. When Napoleon claimed to have revoked decrees against American shipping, Madison decided to send an envoy to confirm the understanding, although no one had any confidence in the mission. Barlow wrote that “the sacrifice of ease & comfort on my part is too great & the prospect of doing good to the public too little.”4Woodress, 277. In 1811, however, he went to Poland in pursuit of Napoleon, whose armies were then in retreat from Russia. On December 24, 1812, he perished from exposure in the village of Zarnowiec. His last poem, written shortly before his futile death, was a bitterly ironic denunciation of the little Corsican, Advice to a Raven in Russia December, 1812, from which comes this sampling:
Fear nothing then, hatch fast your ravenous brood,
Teach them to cry to Bonaparte for food; . . .
While on his slaughter’d troops your tribes are fed,
You cleanse his camp and carry off his dead. . . .
Hurl from his blood-built throne this king of woes,
Dash him to dust, and let the world repose.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.