Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Peale, a Plant, and a Pot

There are certain paintings and works of art that I return to again and again, and where each time I do so I experience a thrill of discovery reminiscent of the first time my eyes were so fortunate as to have gazed upon them.  In other words, they resonate with me.  I plan to write about these works of art from time to time here on Reggie Darling.

Rubens Peale with a Geranium
Painted by Rembrandt Peale, 1801
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The first work I will discuss is the charming portrait of Rubens Peale with a Geranium, painted in 1801 by his brother, Rembrandt Peale.  I know that I am not alone in appreciating this painting, one of our Nation's treasures.  It is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art ("NGA") in Washington, D.C., an exquisite museum that the astonishingly philanthropic Mellon family gave to the people of America.  Reggie has visited the National Gallery many times and always seeks to return to it whenever he finds himself in Washington, D.C., a city he lived in as a boy.

Reggie's chest of drawers and mirror at Darlington House
(note postcards in mirror frame)
photo by Boy Fenwick

I am so fond of the painting of Rubens Peale with a Geranium that I have a postcard of it that I bought at the NGA tucked into the frame of the mirror that hangs above my chest of drawers at Darlington House.  I enjoy the close proximity of the image when I find myself in the room, going about my domestic business.

The portrait of Rubens Peale (1784-1865) was painted at the dawning of the nineteenth century by his brother Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860).   The sitter and painter were sons of the celebrated American artist and naturalist Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1827), who named several of his many children after famous painters.  Rubens was an aspiring botanist at the time his portrait was painted, when he was only seventeen years old, and later went on to pursue careers as an artist, like many in his family, and as a director of the Peale family museum.  He is depicted accompanied by a potted geranium, which was an exotic rarity in America at the time his portrait was painted.  Rubens is shown both wearing and holding a pair of metal-framed spectacles, with his hand resting on the clay pot of the plant.  This, I believe, subtly conveys the visual and tactile pleasure he takes (or is it took?) in examining and touching his (for the time) unusual potted plant.  It is a most pleasing portrait, the composition of which is more interesting for the prominence of the potted geranium than what is seen in another portrait of him that his brother painted six years later:

Rubens Peale
Painted by Rembrandt Peale, 1807
The National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Don't get me wrong, I believe the later portrait is wonderful, and exceptionally well-painted; it is certainly a work of art that I would be more than proud to hang at Darlington (the handling of the collars and neckerchief is particularly masterful).  However, I am more drawn to the earlier portrait, an American masterpiece, because it conveys a narrative that extends beyond the mere depiction of the sitter.  I also like the fact that the earlier portrait shows Rubens accompanied by something as unexpected and charming as a flowering geranium, of which he is justifiably proud, for it is a handsome specimen, indeed.

Our potted heirloom geranium
photo by Boy Fenwick

Given my affinity for Rubens Peale with a Geranium, it is not surprising that I own a geranium planted in a clay pot, inspired by the painting.  Although mine is clearly not the same type as Rubens Peale's, it is a fragrant heirloom variety bought from a dealer who specializes in specimen plants, and it flowers with similar small red blossoms as the geranium depicted in the painting

As I was writing this essay I realized that the clay pot shown in the above photograph is but a sorry vessel for my geranium when compared with the one in Rubens Peale's portrait, and that I should endeavor to repot it more sympathetically.  I recalled that I had seen a clay pot inspired by the one in the painting when I visited the Trade Secrets annual spring garden sale last year in Sharon, Connecticut.  At that show the talented and prolific contemporary potter Guy Wolff had a booth where he was selling, among other things, a pot modeled after the one in the portrait of Rubens Peale, which he called "the Peale Pot."  We have many clay pots at Darlington made by Guy and his potter son Ben, and have collected them for years as they are handsome and beautifully made.

I decided to expand the focus of this essay to also include a road trip to visit Guy Wolff's studio where I hoped to buy one of his Peale pots to repot my geranium, so that it would more closely resemble the one in the painting of Rubens Peale.  I called the studio and was pleased to speak with the master potter himself, and learned that he had many of his Peale pots in stock to choose amongst, should I stop by his shop that weekend.  So Boy and I fired up the Rover that Saturday morning and drove over to Connecticut on a mission to visit Guy Wolff's studio and buy a pot or two.

The Wolff Pottery studio and shop in Bantam, Connecticut
photo by Reggie Darling

Guy Wolff's studio and shop is located on Route 202 in Bantam, Connecticut, several miles south of Litchfield, and a pleasant 90 minute drive from Darlington House.  The shop was manned the day we visited by Erica Wolff--Guy's wife--and their daughter Elizabeth.  The Wolffs offer many different styles and sizes of pots to choose from, and there was a healthy stream of people stopping by their shop the early spring Saturday we visited.

photos by Reggie Darling

Right inside the door of the shop we found the inspiration for our trip--a stash of Peale Pots in various sizes.  Eureka!

A selection of Peale Pots
photo by Boy Fenwick

While we were there we were also enchanted by the other pots on display, and chose several non-Peale pots to also add to our collection of Wolff pots.

Pots thrown by Guy Wolff and his son Ben Wolff
photos by Boy Fenwick

We fell in to a pleasant conversation with Erica Wolff and explained to her how it was that we came to visit the studio that day, namely to purchase a Peale Pot.  When she learned of our regard for the painting of Rubens Peale, she smiled sweetly and said that she had something that we just might like to have, and then disappeared.

Large clay pots curing in the sun
photo by Reggie Darling

She returned several minutes later carrying a small bottle containing what appeared to be geranium shoots, taking root.  But these were no ordinary geranium shoots.  According to Erica, Rubens Peale apparently gave Thomas Jefferson, a man who shared his interest in botany, a cutting from his geranium plant as a gift around the time his portrait was painted, and the geranium shoots in her bottle were descended from the very plant depicted in the painting.  She said that Monticello's horticultural curator contacted them shortly after her husband started producing the Peale Pot with the news that Monticello had a descendant of that geranium in their collection, and that the Wolffs were welcome to a cutting of it.  Erica Wolff then proceeded to give us one of the shoots, much to our astonishment and joy!

Our Peale-Potted Geraniums
photo by Boy Fenwick

Here is a photograph of our newly-repotted geranium, and also the cutting Erica Wolff gave us that we have potted in a smaller Peale Pot.  Both pots were made by her husband, Guy Wolff.  I am very pleased to have found the appropriate pot for our geranium, and absolutely thrilled to now have a cutting from the descendant of the geranium depicted in Rubens Peale with a Geranium.  Thank you, Erica Wolff.

Reggie believes that he is a very fortunate man, indeed.

I encourage my readers to investigate Guy Wolff's interesting and informative website, where he has examples of his work for sale, plus his show schedule.  While there be sure to click on the link to his potter son Ben Wolff's website, too.

G. Wolff Pottery
Traditional & Horticultural Wares
1249 Bantam Road/P.O. Box 868
Bentam, Connecticut 06750
(860) 567-5577


  1. How fascinating! The story of the Peale family & paintings is wonderful. Then to hear the history behind the geraneums.The Peale pots by Wolff are perfect for them!

    Art by Karena

  2. Mr Darling, your posts are such a good read, especially for the early morning whilst drinking my coffee. I too can imagine driving halfway across the universe - I realize the Wolff pottery is not that far away - for the right pot. I liked the simplicity, the everydayness, of your first plantpot but you're right, the connection had been made and change was required. A handsome pot indeed! I remember being fascinated by the painting of Peale and his geranium years ago when I first saw it.

  3. Reggie:

    I demand an update and photo this summer when your "new" geranium flowers".

    To my mind, there is not a simpler, or chic-er plant than the geranium. And the fragrance of its leaves is sublime- the very essence of summer. If you haven't tried them, try to get ahold of a lemon or rose secented geranium (to be grown in a Wolff pot, naturally). Mine are the descendants of a huge speciman that was grown in a local greenhouse to supply leaves for the fingerbowls of its aged owner. The fingerbowls may have gone the way of the Dodo Bird, but the geraniums still thrive.

  4. Without a doubt my favorite American portrait. Clear, fresh, direct, yet intensely personal---as immediate as a snapshot.

    The pots are great.

  5. Michele from BostonApril 15, 2010 at 1:52 PM

    Wow! What a wonderful story. A cutting from Thomas Jefferson's garden...I think my toes have completely curled back in envy. A truly lucky happenstance, indeed. Congratulations on how far your inspiration has taken you. Be sure to post a photo when the cutting and your original heirloom bloom. And if people didn't know this already, gardeners are wonderful people (just like dog people).

  6. Great post. I was fortunate to work in the Publications Department( the fancy name for the Gift shop) at the National Gallery a few years back and visited this painting often. One of my favorites!

    Love the arrangement on your chest of drawers. Thanks for another peek into Darlington House.

  7. I won't attempt to add anything to The Down East Dilettante's succinct
    appraisal of that delightful portrait; yet I would suggest to you Reggie that the plant depicted isn't a geranium but rather, a Pelargonium~ no matter what the the National Gallery of Art tells us.

  8. Thanks for this captivating tale, Reggie. Generally speaking, Peale pantings pique my interest, but this was a particularly interesting twist to the story regarding Mr. Jefferson. Just delightful. In fact, it's made my day.

    @The Modern Traditionalist - Thanks for sending this, dear.


  9. The Peales and the Wolffs! OMG what a lovely day...and I didn't even get invited.

  10. Wow Reggie, only you would come out with such an interesting article on clay pots and geraniums! Frankly im just a simple gardener and have never given much thought to pots or geraniums, which I love, but now I will. Shouldn't that geranium be outside in the sun? they love plenty of sunshine, you know and when you water them (they don't like too much) make sure you don't get the leaves. We want you to be more successful with these than you were with the topiaries!

  11. Reggie Darling, this post will grow and have its own life. It is beautiful from beginning to end. We will all be awaiting tender offspring from this heirloom. every commenter here should be in line for one over the next ten years-yes I would be last, but good things come to those who wait. The portrait is memorable, so much preferred to the second you post. It was waiting for your story to evolve and others to emerge. Interesting too that you find the simple postcard inspiring-do we all have this little quirk? I do it on my bedroom mirror, right now a Liotard from the Frick has my attention. sometimes the medium is not as important as the message. pgt

  12. Such an interesting post, I was immediately captivated! Thank you for all you shared! I am eager to see the blooms on your precious "windfall" from Mrs. Wolff.

  13. Reggie , I am sorry to have missed you .I think that was the week end I was in New Mexica making pots for Susan Koman . I am so happy to find this blog and am very glad we had some Peale Pots around when you came . (They are very popular!) . The original geranium was a gift from the staff at Monticello . I hope to see youon your next visit to us ! Yours Guy

  14. Hello Guy,
    You had told me that you were going to be in Santa Fe when we spoke on the phone. Erica and Elizabeth were charming in your absence. Perhaps I shall see you at Trade Secrets? Rgds, Reggie

  15. I am thrilled to read this post. I have a cutting of this geranium as well -- given to me by a colleague who attended the Historic Landscape Institute at Monticello. I have tended it with a fervor that borders on obsession for the past three years and it has grown to nearly double the size of the one in the Peale portrait. It is a hardy, leggy, lovely fellow and I adore it. I need to get my hands on a Peale pot, immediately!

    1. Hello Anon: How lovey that you also have a cutting! And it is indeed a healthy plant with a vigorous growth. Do order a pot from Guy Wolfe, it's a must!! Reggie


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