Sheldon Peck


Peck was born in Cornwall, Vermont, the son of a farmer and blacksmith. He began painting portraits of his family and neighbors in the Cornwall area by his middle twenties.His early work bears a strong resemblance to portraits that William Jennys (active 1795–1806) had painted in nearby Middlebury, Vermont, a generation earlier. Peck may have studied Jennys’ portraits to learn the rudiments of painting. Also like Jennys’, Peck’s Vermont likenesses exhibit assured drawing, sharp delineation of highlight and shadow to suggest the contours of the face, subtle coloration, stiff poses, and dour expressions. The severe countenances that recur in Peck’s work seemuncharitable to modern eyes. Yet such images were deemed fitting in a culture that carefully codified the rules of deportment and propriety, and sitters expected their portraits to show their diligence, prosperity, and status as effectively as they captured their likenesses.Peck moved his young family from Vermont to Jordan in Onondaga County, New York, in 1828. Located along the recently opened Erie Canal, Jordan was wellsituated to put Peck in contact with the constant flow of canal traffic and potential sitters. There, Peck continued to paint mostly half-length portraits on wood panels ashe had in Vermont, but now he more often included accessories such as jew elry, paint-decorated side chairs, and swags of drapery to increase his work’s decorativeappeal.In 1835, Peck moved to Chicago for several months before moving yet again 25 miles west to the settlement of Babcock’s Grove (now Lombard), Illinois, where he built a home and farm and continued painting portraits, traveling as far as the St. Louis area in search of commissions. About 1845 he introduced a dramatic departurefrom his previous work with a series of large, ambitious oil-on-canvas portraits of people who lived in and around nearby Aurora, Illinois. These original and inventivecompositions appear to have been part of an effort to compete with the widespread popularity of the daguerreotype. Utilizing a horizontal format, bright colors, multiplefulllength figures standing and sitting in stage-like settings with tables on which are vases of flowers and Bibles, as well as trompe l’oeil mahogany frames painteddirectly on the canvas, these paintings have few precedents in American folk portraiture. No portraits painted by Peck after 1849 have been located to date, indicating that he could no longer compete with photography. During the 1850s he worked as anornamental painter, probably painting signs, banners, and furniture from a studio he operated in Chicago.