200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 158: “The Eyes in the Library ”

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portrait of Thomas Say by Rembrandt Peale
Thomas Say by Rembrandt PealeAcademy Archives Coll no. 2011-025

The Eyes in the Library

Many eyes watch researchers in the Academy Library’s Reading Room, but 72 of these eyes never move: They belong to the 36 oil portraits of Academy dignitaries of two centuries. The collection ranges from Charles Willson Peale’s (1741–1827) work depicting Academy founder Gerard Troost to Nelson Shanks’ (b. 1937) recent oil of Seymour Preston, distinguished member of the Academy’s Board of Trustees.

In addition to these treasures, there is one oil portrait that hangs in the Library Director’s office: a stunningly realistic portrait of Academy founder and renowned naturalist Thomas Say (1787–1834). This particular prize was painted by Peale’s son Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860).  By all accounts it garners second looks. This impression was underscored during a recent visit by a scholar who specializes in portraits of 19th century American gentlemen. She said, shamelessly, that this is the “most handsome depiction of the most handsome 19th century man” she had ever seen in her decades-long research career. Was Thomas Say perhaps the New Republic’s most eligible bachelor? Let the voters decide.

You can see these portraits when you stop in for our daily page turning of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. Find out more about this weekday event.

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