Legacy. What is a Legacy?

Title: Legacy. What is a legacy?


As you probably know if you’ve read my previous blog posts, Charles Willson Peale was an American artist during and after the American Revolution. He is also an example of an artist who witnessed fading within his own paintings. In 1790, Peale revisited one of his paintings he’d made 15 years earlier. He noticed his reds had faded to cold black shadows and wrote in his journal “Had I used vermillion or light red, how much better these paintings would have been.” Three years later he advertised his paintings would no longer lose their brilliance.


Scholars have taken this to mean Peale stopped using carmine, a vibrant red also known for its rapid fading, but did he? Determining when he stopped, or if he stopped, using carmine is one of the goals of my summer research but who was Charles Willson Peale and why does his carmine use matter?


Born in England in 1709, he was exiled to America after he was found guilty of forgery. When in America, he was exposed to several different painters and his own work impressed Maryland planters and merchants so much they sent him back to England to receive a formal education. He then returned to America and taught all that he’d learned to his brother and children.


Several of his children made names for themselves in the art world. The best known are Rumbrant Peale, Raphaelle Peale, and Sarah Miriam Peale. His children’s style tended to blend Peale’s European techniques with common 19th-century modes. Peale was such a big influence on his children’s art education that many scholars wonder how did his use or lack of use of carmine influence his own children and the younger generations of American artists who followed? Did Peale’s disparaging remarks about carmine warn the next generation of artists away from carmine? These are all questions on the conservation side of this project that I hope to answer by determining if he stopped using carmine when he discovered it was fading.


To do this, I’m using a technique called Surface-Enhanced Raman Scattering (SERS). Normal Raman Scattering occurs when a sample is illuminated by a light source and the vibrational modes are promoted to a virtual state, usually from the ground state. The vibrational mode then relaxes to an excited state. But the fluorescence from exciting organic molecules, such as carmine, overpowers the Raman signal. To quench the fluorescence and amplify the signal, silver nanoparticles are applied to the samples and act as a natural antenna for the Raman signal.


Using SERS, I hope to see what Peale’s paintings can tell us about dye fading and his own legacy.


P.S. If you know what I am referencing with my title, we need to be best friends.


  1. admason01 says:

    Hi Marisa! First off, you’re referencing Hamilton: An American Musical in your title. I’m a big fan as well. I also have a question: will SERS help identify whether or not a specific chemical element which made carmine more prone to fading compared to other red paints, or will it only identify whether or not Peale switched his paint preference?

  2. Anna Chahuneau says:

    Hello Marisa, all this seems fascinating. I do have a couple of questions for you; however. For example, did most famous painters after Peale still use carmine? Or was this time period the demise of the use of that color? I also want to know why does his carmine use matter? Is that color still sold today?
    The blend of art history and science here is very appreciated, and well worth pursuing. Thank you for keeping us updated.