Sheldon Peck


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Painter. The generally dour, staring, and ill-proportioned sitters who populate his portraits nevertheless project a strong presence through Peck's willful simplification and emphatic design. Self-taught, he started painting in New England, relocated to western New York State, and finally settled permanently in Babcock Grove (now Lombard), Illinois. The three geographic areas correspond with three fairly distinct periods in the evolution of his work. Born and raised in Cornwall, Vermont, he probably began painting around 1820. Using wood panels as supports, he produced bust- and half-length likenesses, usually set against dark backgrounds. As he forged a distinctive style, he played harshly sculptured faces against flatter clothing, which he soon began to elaborate with decorative detail. In 1828 he settled in Jordan, just west of Syracuse, on the recently opened Erie Canal. There his colors became lighter, and he began to employ more elaborate settings, suggesting new familiarity with more sophisticated models. In 1836 he departed for Illinois. After a short period in Chicago, he purchased land about twenty miles west of the city. There he prospered as a farmer, while continuing his portrait business as well. Later he also took daguerreotype portraits, but his paintings show no evidence that he wished to mimic photographic veracity. Perhaps he purposefully intended to differentiate his grander product from small, colorless daguerreotypes. Painting now on canvas, he often displayed his figures at full length, sometimes in groups of two or more. His colors brightened and settings took on more than incidental importance, as he amplified his sitters' circumstances with furniture, fruit and flowers, books and newspapers, and other accoutrements. Sometimes he edged his canvases with painted frames imitating wood. His son Charles Peck (1827–1900) painted landscapes, including some of the West, as well as portraits. Also a photographer, served in that capacity in the Union army during the Civil War. He worked in St. Louis as well as Chicago, where he died. The Sheldon Peck Homestead in Lombard is open to the public under the auspices of the local historical society.

Subjects: Art.

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