The Art of Sheldon Peck (1797-1868)

Sheldon Peck was a noted folk artist and staunch abolitionist. Born in Vermont, he was most likely a self-taught painter. His earliest works in the 1820s were portraits characterized by dark colors and plain backgrounds, much like his later paintings of Howard and Sophie Soule that we hold in our collection. 

Peck and his wife Harriet left Vermont and settled in the burgeoning village of Jordan, NY in 1828. They most likely traveled down Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, then used the newly opened Erie Canal to move west. During his time in New York, Peck’s style shifted.

Brighter colors and more detailed backgrounds slowly began to emerge in his paintings. 

Howard Soule (Cayuga Museum Collection)
Sophie Soule (Cayuga Museum Collection)

Howard and Sophie Soule were married in 1815 and lived in Sennett NY, where Howard was elected Justice of the Peace in 1829.

Painted in his earlier style, these portraits were created in the early 1830s. 

Fun Fact: In his double portraits, Peck reversed the usual placement of the man on the woman’s right, perhaps because he was unaware of that convention.

Folk artists frequently traveled around seeking commissions, and portraiture was the most common form of folk art in the 1800s. Many artists painted the faces of their subjects on-site, then added in clothing and backgrounds later. This allowed them to work quickly with limited supplies. Peck may have worked this way as well. Many of the backgrounds he used were the same and he often painted identical clothing onto his subjects.

Sheldon Peck prospered in New York as an artist and farmer. Despite his success, the family moved to Illinois in 1836, living in Chicago for about a year then established themselves in Lombard, IL. According to a family tradition Peck traded his land in Chicago for a team of horses to move his family and furnishings to Lombard. Here the Pecks are said to have lived in a covered wagon for two years while Peck built the house, which is now a historic site.  In Lombard, Peck worked as a farmer and started the first school in his own home. Peck strongly supported abolition, and his barn was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

His painting style evolved again in Illinois. He began consistently using bright colors and painted full-length figures, often in groups. Sometimes he attempted to give the settings three-dimensionality by painting in the floorboards, and painting a trompe l’oeil grained frame directly on the canvas became one of his signatures, though he never signed his work.

By using brighter colors, larger canvases, and trompe l’oeil frames Peck was offering effects that could not be achieved in the inexpensive daguerreotypes which had been introduced in 1839 and proved quick competition for painted portraits. By the 1850s, photography had overtaken portrait painting in popularity and Peck turned to other areas to apply his skills. In 1854 and 1855, Peck had a studio in Chicago, where he advertised himself as “decorative painter,” perhaps painting chairs and other furniture. He died of pneumonia on March 19, 1868.

Take A Look at Peck’s Other Work Around the Country!

American Folk Art Museum

Art Institute of Chicago

Flint Institute of Art

Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute

Yale University Art Gallery