A member of the illustrious Peale family, which played a prominent role in the cultural and intellectual life of postcolonial America, James Peale grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, and received his artistic training from his older brother Charles Willson Peale, who had studied in London with Benjamin West. After serving in the Continental Army under George Washington, James moved to Philadelphia, where he joined his brother’s portrait studio, painting miniatures while Charles handled the commissions for larger-scale canvases. Though he exhibited a still life in 1795 at the Columbianum exhibition in Philadelphia, James painted few if any still lifes during the next twenty years. His reputation as one of the first professional still-life painters in the United States, a distinction he shares with Charles’s son Raphaelle, rests on the works that he executed between 1819 and 1831 and exhibited at Rembrandt Peale’s Baltimore Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Boston Athenaeum. Why James turned to still life so late in his career is not known, but it may well have been Raphaelle’s example that inspired him. Still-life painting held little economic incentive prior to the second decade of the nineteenth century. By that time the number of exhibitions mounted in the United States began to increase, thus providing painters with more opportunities to display their works to the public, an important consideration in the case of still lifes, which were usually painted on speculation rather than on commission. 
Peale favored pieces of fruit or vegetables or combinations thereof and in general placed them in wicker baskets, directly on a table or shelf, or in a ceramic bowl as he does here. He painted a number of his still lifes in a classical style, emphasizing solid simple forms and balanced rectilinear designs. While the present canvas displays well-modeled pieces of fruit and clearly delineated geometric shapes, a nascent romantic spirit tempers its classical sobriety. Light plays over the objects and the background, illuminating some passages and leaving others in darkness, giving the canvas a faintly moody quality. Bunches of grapes fall languorously from the bowl and lie expressively on the table.The lines bounding the different objects are slightly blurred, and the composition is arranged along a diagonal line that moves from the lower left corner through the center of the picture. As in many of his still lifes, Peale depicted blemishes and brown spots on the pieces of fruit. Those spots not only enhance the naturalism of the image, but also insinuate the specters of death and decay, favored Romantic themes, and link the canvas to the tradition of vanitas still lifes, which remind the viewer of the transience of life.
On the evidence of the inscription on the original canvas, this work is customarily dated to 1830. James’s nephew Rubens Peale, another son of Charles, painted two copies of this composition that date to 1856 and 1860 (Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York, and Mead Art Museum, Amherst, Massachusetts). In Rubens’s versions, the light is more evenly distributed, the line tighter, and the composition altogether stiffer.
1.William H. Gerdts, Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life, 1801–1939, exh. cat. (Columbia, Mo.: Philbrook Art Center and University of Missouri Press, 1981), 50–51.
This text was adapted from Karyn Esielonis, Still-Life Painting in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, exh. cat. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1994).