'Death' came to town via oil, canvas

On a midspring day in 1822, Augustans traveled down Greene Street to the newly built courthouse.


They paid $1 (about $16 in today's money), entered a big room and looked life-size death in the face. To be specific, they viewed Rembrandt Peale's 312-square-foot painting The Court of Death.

It was big (24 feet by 13 feet). It was bold. It was, according to accounts of the time, "a sensation."

The painting, with 23 life-size figures, shows Death sitting in his underworld lair grimly weighing the fate of a body placed at his feet.

The other figures depict the various ways one can die. To quote a New York Times review from 1874: "Beneath the arm of Death stoop Pleasure, Remorse, and Suicide, while nearby are forms representing the various diseases incident to a life devoted to gratification of the passions."

In other words, the big picture is part art, part Sunday school lesson.

To emphasize this point, Old Age (modeled by Peale's famous artist father, Charles Willson Peale), is seen supported by a figure representing faith.

The Augusta Chronicle announced the artwork's display on its front page April 8, 1822, and suggested that viewers might want to make multiple trips to take in all the nuances.

"To become acquainted with an original picture, composed of many figures, the result of much study and thought, it is necessary to view it more than once," the newspaper advised.

It was almost like going to the movies. We don't have Augusta's attendance figures, but we do have an idea that it was very popular.

Cary Wilkins, the archivist at the Morris Museum of Art, found other accounts that crowds throughout the South flocked to Peale's Court of Death tour, which netted the artist $9,000 in 1822 (about $150,000 today.)

Most viewings were said to charge only 50 cents, which indicates Augusta must have been considered a more affluent venue.

The painting was considered a masterwork and held prominence for decades.

Peale, who died in 1860, is better known today for his famous portraits of Founding Fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Augusta's courthouse, where the painting was displayed, was torn down in the 1950s.

Almost 200 years after The Court of Death visited Augusta, it is on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which acquired it in 1885.