Robert Peckham


Peckham was a Massachusetts portrait painter with a special sensitivity toward children that is evident in the detailed canvases he painted, primarily during the 1830s and 1840s.Peckham was born in Petersham, Massachusetts. In 1813 he married Ruth Sawyer of Bolton, Massachusetts, and by 1821 they had moved with their growing familyto Westminster, Massachusetts. Peckham was a man of conscience and a strict temperance advocate and became deacon of the First Congregational Church inWestminster in 1828. He was also a staunch abolitionist and opened his house for anti-slavery lectures; it has been speculated that his home was a stop on theUnderground Railroad, the secret organization that helped enslaved laborers flee the Southern United States to Canada or other “safe” places before the abolition of slavery. Peckham’s anti-slavery beliefs caused a rift in his church that resulted in his resigning his post as deacon after fourteen years; he was officially excommunicated in 1850. Peckham moved his family toWorcester, Massachusetts, but returned to Westminster in 1862, and was reinstated in the church.Peckham is one of the few portrait painters in the folk genre known to have received instruction from an academic artist. From January through April of 1809 hestudied with Ethan Allen Greenwood (1779–1866). Later that year he painted his earliest known work, the head and torso portrait of his friend James Humphreys Jr.In 1815 he advertised with his brother Samuel H.Peckham in the Hampshire Gazette: “House, Sign, and Ornamental Painting. Also Gilding, Glazing, and Varnishing.”By 1817 he painted an ambitious canvas on a small scale (measuring 27 by 32 inches) of 16 members of the combined Peckham and Sawyer families. These earlycanvases have muted palettes, which is different in spirit from his brilliant portraits of the 1830s and 1840s, which feature children centrally located and surrounded bytoys and interior details. Bright clothes, patterned carpets, grain-painted tables, and other elements lend animation to portraits such as The Raymond Children, The Hobby Horse, Rosa Heywood, and Charles L. Eaton and his Sister, this fact has led some scholars to question whether Peckham is indeed the artist of both groupsof paintings. In addition, these portraits of “doll-like” children invariably have a pronounced delineation of the temples that is not seen in Peckham’s portraits of adults,save that of the Mrs. William Cowee portrait. The Farwell Children, painted about 1841, provides the transition between these portraits and the earlier works. It features five children in a circular compositionwearing bright clothes, but they are set against a dusky background typical of Peckham’s early documented work. This family portrait also continues a practice of posthumous portraiture that Peckham engaged in as early as the 1820s. The most striking example is the painting Peckham completed of his sister-in-law’s family, The Children of Oliver Adams. Painted in 1831, a family record hanging on the wall in the painting lists that same year as the one in which one of the children portrayeddied.Robert Peckham first gained contemporary notice for his landscape Westminster Village in 1831. Less familiar today are paintings such as The Woes of Liquor (Intemperance), signed “R.Peckham/Pinxet,” and The Happy Abstemious Family (Temperance), which further illustrate the artist’s firm support of the temperancemovement. Though a religious man and strict in his beliefs, Peckham is remembered as having “mingled much humanity with his piety,” an apt description of the artistwho advertised himself as a “delineator of the human face divine.”