Artwork by Paul Peel,  The Young Biologist, 1891

Paul Peel
The Young Biologist, 1891

oil on canvas
signed lower left
18.25 x 15 ins ( 46.4 x 38.1 cms )

Auction Estimate: $150,000.00$100,000.00 - $150,000.00

Price Realized $144,000.00
Sale date: December 6th 2023

Isaure Verdier Peel, 1892
By descent to Marguerite Peel, circa 1936
Haynes Art Galleries, Toronto, 1936
Private Collection, Baltimore, Maryland
Sotheby's Canada, auction, Toronto, 31 May 1990, lot 58 Private Collection
Haynes Art Galleries, Toronto, 17‒19 December 1936 as “The Unexpected Meeting”
“Home Truths”, The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa; travelling to the Mississauga Living Arts Centre, Ontario; Rodman Hall, St. Catharines, 13 November 1997‒22 February 1998
“The Group of Seven: Revelations and Changing Perspectives,” McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, 22 May‒20 September 2010
“Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven,” Vancouver Art Gallery; travelling to the Glenbow Museum, Calgary; Art Gallery of Hamilton, 29 October 2015‒25 September 2016
“Canadian Art: A Child's World: Annual Loan Exhibition”, Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Montreal, 28 October‒11 November 2017, no. 11
“Our Children: Reflections of Childhood in Historical Canadian Art”, Varley Art Gallery of Markham, 13 April‒23 June 2019
Sotheby's Canada, “Important Canadian Art”, Toronto, 1990, unpaginated, lot 58, reproduced on back cover
Joan Murray, “Home Truths: A Celebration of Family Life by Canada’s Best‒Loved Painters,” Toronto, 1997, plate 55, reproduced page 80
‘Review of Home Truths’, “St. Catharines Standard”, 25 January 1998, reproduced
“Magazin’Art “(Spring 2002), reproduced page 158
A.K. Prakash, “Canadian Art: Selected Masters from Private Collections”, Ottawa, 2003, reproduced page 40
Christine Boyanoski, ‘Figures in the Landscape en plein air’ in Ian M. Thom, et al., “Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver/London, 2015, page 60, reproduced page 74
This is the smallest of two known artist’s autographed replicas of “The Young Biologist” (Art Gallery of Ontario), completed between January and May 1891 in the artist’s Paris studio. A larger oil on canvas replica (22 x 18 1⁄4 inches) is in private hands. In the nineteenth century, artist’s replicas were considered originals, not copies, and were highly valued by collectors. Motivated by a combination of aesthetic and commercial interests, Paul Peel frequently produced signed replicas of his paintings in different formats. All renderings of this composition, alternatively titled “The Unexpected Meeting”, were yet to be sold at the time of the artist’s untimely death in October 1892.

“The Young Biologist” was conceived a decade after the artist moved to Paris. It is not a portrait, as the simplified composition might suggest, but a narrative genre painting. The priority given to the human figure in this and most of Peel’s artwork demonstrates an ongoing aesthetic allegiance to the French academic style introduced in the Paris studio of Jean‒Léon Gérôme (1881‒1883). Further experience painting directly from nature (en plein air) in the French countryside alongside fellow graduates of the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, and later at the Paris Académie Julian (1887‒1889) encouraged the more colourful, painterly style of his later years, of which this is an example. An interest in children as preferred painting subjects is traceable throughout Peel’s career, but effectively becomes the artist’s “brand” with the public success of “After the Bath” at the Paris Salon of 1890, portraying two toddlers innocently warming their unclothed bodies before a glowing hearth.

“The Young Biologist”, completed in its varied formats a year later, situates the central figure of a little boy within a landscape setting, balancing flora and fauna with the human figure. The pictorial narrative (highlighted in the artist’s exhibition title) focuses on the interplay between human and nature, a benevolent one in this case, as the little boy prepare to capture the frog in a hidden pail, but nonetheless one in which humanity has control. This composition finds its roots in a series of outdoor studies of children at play Peel explored during his summer sojourns in Brittany and Normandy. One example, “The Two Friends” (1886)‒a small plein air study of a little boy with back turned, placing a wreath of daisies on a dog‒was replicated by the artist at least three times.

In “The Young Biologist”, Peel seeks to capture the honest, if fleeting, human emotion of surprise, one of the seven universal emotions arising when we encounter sudden and unexpected sounds or movements. Despite the inherent sweetness of the model, the picture avoids self‒indulgent sentimentalism (bathos) by an empirically objective representation of naturally occurring and illuminated plant and animal life. Herein manifests the dual relationship of Victorian audiences to the natural world: at once scientific and emotional. Indeed, the very concept of biology as a single coherent field arose in the 19th century, yet, for more Victorians their encounters with nature, whether in person or through art, remained, above all, a repository of feeling.

Precedents for this little composition are found in “The Gleaner” (1888, Art Gallery of Ontario) and “The Young Botanist” (1888, 3 versions, including Museum London) based on plein air studies painted around Étaples, Normandy, during the summer of 1887, in which the sun‒drenched figure of a poor local girl is represented (originally in pastel), respectively standing and sitting, on a a sand dune. Similarly, the protagonist is emotionally distanced from the viewer by studied self‒absorption with butterflies and flowers, respectively. Peel’s interpretation of humanity’s relationship with the natural world is ever gentle founded upon the inherent innocence and vulnerability of the central child subject. This wholesome vision aligned with the middleclass values of art collectors at home in Canada, where Peel regularly exhibited his work.

We extend our thanks to Victoria Baker, Canadian art historian and author of “Paul Peel: A Retrospective, 1860‒1892” for contributing the preceding essay.

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Paul Peel
(1860 - 1892) RCA,OSA

Paul Peel was born in London, Ontario in 1860. His early art training was provided in London by his father, John Robert Peel, and William Lees Judson, then at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia under Thomas Eakins. He later moved to Paris where he received art instruction at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Jean-Paul Gerome and at the Acadmie Julien under Benjamin Constant, Henri Doucet, and Jules Lefebvre. He then traveled widely in Canada and Europe exhibiting as a member of the Ontario Society of Artists and the Royal Canadian Academy. He also exhibited at international shows like the Paris Salon.

Peel's work was very popular in both his lifetime and today. It is executed mainly in oil and employs genre, landscape, marine and portrait subjects. His conservative style reflected the official one then taught in the French government academies but, at the time of his death, Peel appeared to be changing his style toward impressionism. He died in Paris in 1892.