Charles Willson Peale
(Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, 1741 – 1827, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
“It is the mind I would wish to represent through the features of the man, and he that does not possess a good mind, I do not desire to portray his features.”(1)
- Charles Willson Peale, 1818
In the early days of American nationhood, support for the arts was not seen as a legitimate cause. While trying to establish a national identity yet remain tied to native England, artists looked abroad in search of instruction and inspiration. By traveling to England and continental Europe, artists were able to study from the Old Masters and enter established art schools where they could learn the technical skill and theory necessary to become a successful artist. In studying abroad, one of the many things artists saw was the long established tradition of history painting. Considered the highest form of painting (followed by portraiture, landscape, and still life), history painting represented any religious, historical, or mythological event from the past. The genre established a link between the past and the present, taught moral lessons, and often paralleled contemporary situations.(2) Since America could only claim a short national history, history painting required more time and expense than an underdeveloped society could encourage. As a result, artists like Charles Willson Peale continued the tradition of colonial portraiture to represent the young nation. However, instead of incorporating objects that represented material wealth, Peale utilized allegory and symbolism to represent contemporary events, thereby creating a history painting under the guise of a portrait.
Born in 1741 near Chestertown, Maryland, Charles Willson Peale was the eldest child of a Maryland school teacher.(3) Peale’s father died when the artist was nine years old, and as a result, the Peale family was forced to move to Annapolis. Here, the artist’s mother was able to support her children with her sewing. At the age of thirteen, Peale began an apprenticeship with a saddler where he learned to work metal, upholster furniture, repair watches, and handle tools.(4) Peale learned how to use his eyes and hands and invent whatever he needed. For example, when his watch failed him, he taught himself to repair watches. Peale would not remain in the saddler business for long, as his inventiveness and inquisitiveness forced him into other fields.
On a trip to Norfolk, Virginia to obtain leather for his saddles, Peale happened upon some “miserably done” landscapes and a portrait that he decided he could do better.(5) Upon his return to Maryland, Peale bought instruction books and art materials. He then traded John Hesselius (1728-78), a well known colonial portraitist, a saddle for painting lessons.(6)
In 1762, Peale married Rachel Brewer (1744-1790), the daughter of an Anne Arundel County landowner and member of a large family of wealthy and socially prominent planters and merchants. She introduced Peale to wealthy Maryland society whose patronage soon proved useful. Peale also became actively involved in Maryland politics. He politically identified with the growing dissent of the colonists, and in the 1764 election for Maryland Assembly, he supported antiproprietary Samuel Chase over the court candidate George Stuart. It was at this time that Peale joined the Sons of Liberty, and helped the cause by making signs for the Stamp Act Demonstration.
By 1765, Peale was running his own saddlery and unfortunately had incurred a large amount of debt. Forced to flee his creditors, he found refuge aboard his brother-in-law’s merchant vessel on its way to Boston. Although distressing, this period to Boston proved to be a turning point in the career of the young artist.
While in Boston, Peale met prominent colonial portraitist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) and also visited the former studio of British artist John Smibert (1688-1751) where he saw copies of the European masters for the first time. From Copley, Peale learned how to link figures through the use of outline by the connection of arms or connection from shoulder to shoulder. He also learned how to use background geometry as an ordering or structuring device. However, Peale did not linger in Boston to study with Copley long. He soon returned to Annapolis and had improved his technical ability so much that he impressed a group of Maryland planters and merchants. These wealthy patrons contributed to a fund that enabled the artist to travel to England to study with renowned expatriate Benjamin West (1738-1820).(7) The donations were made freely and no other student of art in colonial America received the same broad-based, generous patronage prior to 1790. The subscribers were motivated by a concern to make Annapolis a city that would outdo others in the quality of its amenities and would begin to approximate the level of refinement that was so evident in Philadelphia by the mid-century.
Peale was in London to study with West from 1767 to 1769 and it was here that he developed the artistic versatility that would characterize his entire career. West emphasized the importance of drawing in relation to painting. He also taught that in drawing, the artist should confine himself to the antique, while in painting; the artist should use nature as a model. However, the artist should not be limited to imitation of nature, individualism must be realized. English painting practices also taught Peale what he needed to know: how to achieve perspective and provide illusion of space, how to render rich materials such as satin and lace to emphasize status and wealth, how to design fabric folds, formalize costumes and paint background landscapes appropriate to the sitter. From books and discussions with London artists, Peale also absorbed classical theory that dominated eighteenth-century British art, with its emphasis on idealism, naturalism, and rational order. It was in London that Peale became aware of the importance of history painting and the heightened social position of the artist. After all, in the newly formed America, artists were still looked upon as craftsmen and had yet to achieve the respected status of artists in England and continental Europe.
Although Peale and West had great rapport in the studio, they both realized a slight problem in their teacher/student relationship. Peale wanted to be a portrait painter and West considered himself a history painter, although he regularly painted portraits. And even though Peale trained with an American artist during his tenure in London, his portraits upon his return to Maryland were more closely resembled English artists like Sir Joshua Reynolds than West’s paintings. The general portrait style that influenced Peale the most was characterized by “solid forms defined by a steady flow of light, simple balanced compositions, strong outlines, and plain color.”(8) It was in London in 1768 that Peale completed his first major work, the full-length portrait, "William Pitt, Earl of Chatham" (Westmoreland County Museum, Montross, Virginia). In the painting, Peale incorporated his lessons from West’s history paintings and English portraiture to create an impressive portrait for an artist with limited experience. The painting represented Pitt (who was a champion of colonial rights) in classical dress holding the Magna Carta. Art historian Jules David Prown explains the iconography:
Defending the claims of the American colonies on the basis of the British constitution, Pitt points to a statue of British Liberty trampling underfoot a petition of the Congress at New York, a petition that had been rejected by the House of Commons. On the plinth of the statue, a relief depicts an Indian with bow in hand and dog at his side, symbolizing American faithfulness (the dog) and firmness (the bow). West may well have made an iconographical contribution here, having noted a few years earlier in connection with a published depiction of an American Indian that when an Indian goes to war, as opposed to going hunting, he leaves his dog behind. Thus America is armed, but not yet ready to undertake hostilities.(9)
Prown further explains that the Pitt portrait reflects two important points in Peale’s oeuvre. First, it reflected Peale’s own political background. Second, it demonstrates that Peale had absorbed from West an awareness of the intellectual potential of a work of art, for Peale painted a portrait in historical guise.
Upon his return to Annapolis in the spring of 1769, Peale’s patrons (the men who had financed his studies in England) were eager to have their portraits painted. As he had done with the "William Pitt" portrait, Peale infused the portraits with republican imagery. For example, "John Beale Bordley" (1770, National Gallery of Art), who was a lawyer and agriculturist, is portrayed as the gentleman farmer on his Maryland plantation. Bordley is formal dress leaning with his left arm on a book that balances on a rock formation. He points to a statue of British Liberty with his right hand. A torn in half document lies at his feet at the bottom left of the canvas and a pastoral landscape stretches behind him. Art historian Sidney Hart explains that Peale divided the portrait into two distinct themes of colonial opposition.(10) The background represents Bordley’s agrarian republican ideals of staple agriculture and economic self-sufficiency, while the foreground represents the colonists’ legal arguments against the British empire. Once again, Peale had successfully integrated a history painting into a portrait, thus demonstrating that not only was he now schooled in portraiture, but that he was also able to adapt to American taste and changing social expectations.
From 1769 to late 1775, Peale primarily worked in and around Annapolis with occasional trips to Williamsburg, Virginia and the surrounding countryside to paint portraits. It was during this period that he painted the Museum’s "Portrait of a Maryland Gentleman" along with its companion piece, "Portrait of a Maryland Lady." Peale also became known for painting “conversation pieces,” which are paintings of two or more individuals intimately engaged as if they are in private conversation. His best known conversation piece is "The Peale Family Group" (c.1772-1809), which included ten members of the Peale family and the family dog. Peale was a strong advocate of family values and his patrons saw the family as an important social and economic entity. During this period he painted a number of conversation pieces and always encouraged his sitters to include their children in the portrait. Annapolis was an influential environment for Peale - he joined the Homony Club, where he was able to discuss books and enjoy conversation that conveyed Enlightenment aesthetic and philosophical principles. However, while intellectually stimulating, Annapolis did not provide sufficient patronage to maintain a resident artist.
In late 1775, Peale moved to Philadelphia in hopes of finding steady employment. When Peale and his family arrived, they found Philadelphians preparing for war. The artist immediately joined in the efforts. Peale painted battle flags for volunteer companies, created effigies of “traitors” for noisy political parades, and designed nationalistic publications and celebratory arches broadcasting revolutionary ideology through classical symbolism.(11) Peale also experimented with the manufacturing of gun powder and telescopic sights for rifles and joined the Philadelphia militia as a “common soldier.” By the end of his military tenure, Peale had been promoted to Captain and served with General George Washington and his army at Trenton and Princeton.(12)
In addition, Peale made one of his largest contributions to American art and history during the Revolution and the years that followed. Peale captured military leaders, statesmen, legislators, writers, and philosophers – all intended as presentations of lessons in social and personal morality. Peale’s republicanism prescribed a portrait style, for it “expressed essential moral and intellectual qualities demanded by a self-governing community.” (13) Peale also painted a series of miniature portraits of army personnel and civilian leaders that in many instances constitute the only images we have of participants in the American Revolution.(14)
In 1779, Peale was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council to paint a series of portraits of General George Washington to honor the General for his defense of Philadelphia. The portraits again illustrate how the artist made the portrait serve historical purposes. In "Washington at Princeton" (1779, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts), Peale depicted Washington in the battle field and incorporated various details narrating Washington’s victories at Princeton and Trenton. The general has a relaxed pose and leans on a cannon, suggesting that it is the moment after the battle. The painting is reportedly the most accurate of Washington’s physique – small head relative to a large body, pear-shaped torso, and skinny legs. The image was repeated eleven times, as well as several half-length versions, most of which were purchased by Washington’s prestigious friends or governmental bodies in the United States or Europe.
After the war, Peale once again turned to the problem of supporting his large family. By 1787, it included his wife and their six children: Raphaelle (1774-1825), Angelica Kauffman (1775-1853), Rembrandt (1778-1860), Titian Ramsay (1780-1798), Rubens (1784-1865), and Sophonisba Anguisciola (1786-1859). The Peales also raised the three children of his sister Elizabeth Polk, who had died sometime in 1776. Peale’s wife, Rachel, died in 1790, and the artist remarried Elizabeth DePeyster (1765-1804) in 1791. In 1794, having lost his most conservative clientele due to his participation in radical politics after the war, and no longer receiving large commissions, Peale retired from professional portraiture.(15) Instead, he turned his focus to one of his most important contributions to American culture and society, his Philadelphia Museum.
Guided by Enlightenment principles, the Peale family was the creative force “for the establishment of a recognizably and uniquely American style of museum.” (16) Peale combined curatorial practice with mass appeal which served to integrate high and popular culture for public education. This amalgamation was a pioneering effort in museum professional practice. Peale’s museum was a natural history museum and displayed objects such as taxidermist animals in their natural habitats, minerals, rocks, ores, plants, and other scientific artifacts. His most renowned display was the first complete set of Mastodon bones that was discovered in the marshes of Newburgh, New York in 1801. The discovery provided scientists in the United States and abroad with a new understanding of prehistoric life on the continent, as well as new ideas about the development of life on earth.(17) Peale in fact painted a history painting of the excavation, entitled The "Exhumation of the Mastodon" (1806-08, The Peale Museum, Baltimore). While not entirely accurate, it included portraits of himself and his family, none of whom were present at the initial excavation.
In 1810, Peale and third wife, Hannah Moore, retired to Belfield, a rural area outside of Philadelphia, leaving his sons to run the museum. Peale, still imaginative and inventive, developed a pleasure garden and became a gentleman farmer. His expansive garden drew large numbers of visitors. But when his wife Hannah died in 1821, he moved back to Philadelphia and resumed management of his museum. It was at this time Peale painted one of his best-known self-portraits entitled "The Artist in His Museum" (1822, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia). In the painting, Peale stands in the middle of the canvas and pulls back an elaborate curtain to reveal to the viewer what lies inside his museum.(18) One can see a variety of taxidermic birds on the left and part of the Mastodon skeleton on the right. In the foreground are a large turkey and other miscellaneous prehistoric bones piled next to a table, on top of which lie the artist’s palette and brushes.
The museum was not Peale’s only contribution to public education. In 1795, Peale established the Columbianum in Philadelphia. It was a university-styled organization designed to provide training for young artists as well as encourage patronage of the arts. Unfortunately, the institution did not last, and was forced to close its doors. Peale, however, did not give up. Determined to found a school for public education in the arts, he opened the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where promising young artists were able to train in the arts and exhibit their works. Still open today, the Academy continues its tradition of supporting young artists.
Charles Willson Peale was the consummate examplar of the American Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers believed that knowledge, reason, and exploration would serve in a public manner and aid in the discovery of truth. Peale was an ardent believer in public education for the betterment of society and not only founded the first “modern” museum, but also established one of the most prestigious American art institutions, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. As an artist, Peale was best known for his portraits of New England gentry and early American political heroes. It was through these portraits that he recorded the faces of early nationhood and as a result established an early pictorial history of America.(19)
(1) Lillian Miller, ed., "The Peale Family: Creation of a Legacy." (New York: Abbeville Press, 1996): 121. For Peale, Miller explains, possessing a good mind was as important as status or morality. This desire to represent good minds stemmed from a vision of the social function of portraiture. It was a genre that could both honor minds that were worth commemorating and supply viewers with role models. Furthermore, not only would the possession of a good mind put a man in a class above other men, but in a successful republic, it was an essential attribute of such a man’s capacity for leadership.
(2) For example, Benjamin West’s (who Peale studied under in London) "The Death of General Wolfe" depicted a scene from English history that stirred pride and patriotism in most Englishmen: James Wolfe, who stalemated for three months in his siege of the French army at Quebec in 1759, led his troops up a path in the Cliffside; he met and defeated a superior number of French on a plain outside the city walls; he was twice wounded, then struck fatally, and at the moment of victory died in the arms of his officers. West’s painting depicts the climactic moment of Wolfe’s death. The work caused a revolution in the development of history painting, as West represented his figures in modern military dress, as they appeared on the battlefield instead of in classical dress such as a Roman toga. Previously history painting reflected classicism, never before had a scene been represented from the immediate past as the battle at Quebec. West’s biographer, Robert C. Alberts, explains that the painting “made the viewer feel that he was present at and a part of a great historic event of his time…It came precisely at a time when Englishmen were prepared to accept a work glorifying English heroism, sacrifice, and victory.” For more on West and The Death of General Wolfe, see Robert C. Alberts, "Benjamin West: A Biography." Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978.
(3) His father, Thomas, was a native Brit and was exiled to the colonies for his participation in a forgery scam that occurred while he was a clerk in the London Post Office.
(4) The apprenticeship lasted seven years, a term he referred to as “bondage.” For more, see Miller, 18.
(5) Miller, 18.
(6) Unfortunately, none of Peale’s paintings from this period exist today.
(7) The group of donators included John Beale Bordley; Charles Carroll, Barrister; Governor Sharp; Daniel Dulaney; Robert Lloyd; Thomas Sprigg; Benjamin Tasker; Thomas Ringgold; Benjamin Calvert; Charles Carroll, Esquire; and Daniel of St. Thomas Genefer.
(8) Prown, 35.
(9) Ibid, 40-1.
(10) The British Statue of Liberty served as a reminder to English audiences that the American colonists are living under and are protected by British law. The paper ripped in half bears the inscription, “Imperial Civil/ Proceeding” and probably symbolized the proceedings by which the new customs duties after 1763 were being collected. The book’s (that Bordley leans on) Latin inscription translates to “We observe the laws of England to be changed,” indicating colonial opposition to a change in the British law that had already occurred. For a more in depth analyzation of the painting, see Sidney Hart’s article, 'Transatlantic Republicanism' in "New Perspectives on Charles Willson Peale."
(11) For more, see Miller, 21.
(12) Peale’s political participation did not end after he left the military. After leaving the militia, Peale joined “The Famous Whigs,” a radical political group whose program included defense of Pennsylvania’s unicameral constitution of 1776 and agitation against the excessive profiteering and escalation of pries by the cities merchants and legislators. For a short while, the artist served as agent for confiscating the estates of British sympathizers, and then as representative for one term in the Pennsylvania legislature.
(13) Miller, 65.
(14) According to Miller, Peale’s heroic Revolutionary portraits also reveal the persistent influence of British heroic portraiture through the decade of the 1770s.
(15) David C. Ward, in ‘Democratic Culture: The Peale Museums, 1784-1850' ("The Peale Family: Creation of a Legacy" Lillian B. Miller, ed. New York: Abbeville Press, 1996), states that this was partly due to Peale’s radical activities during the class warfare that marked Revolutionary Philadelphia. It thus made it difficult for him to secure post-war patrons among the city’s upper class. Although Peale quit professionally, he continued to paint the rest of his life. At this point, he rejected politics altogether along with his political symbolism and allegory.
(16) Ward, 261.
(17) Reportedly, Peale was already 60 when he saw a newspaper report that a farmer in the Hudson Valley had discovered some huge bones of some kind. Peale and his son Rembrandt made their way to the farm of John Masten, west of Newburgh. Peale merely asked to be able to sketch the bones; however, during dinner that evening, one of Masten’s sons asked if Peale would like to buy the bones instead. For two hundred dollars, Peale purchased the bones and for another one hundred the right to dig up anymore that he could unearth. Peale devised a pump to keep water out of the dig site and after a month at the dig site, retuned to Philadelphia with a complete skeleton. When finished constructing the skeleton, it stood eleven feet high at the shoulder and seventeen feet six inches in length. Its curving tusks reached out eleven feet. Understandably, people flocked to the museum to see the skeleton and were charged a fifty cent entrance fee. The skeleton is now owned by a museum in Darmstadt, Germany.
(18) For more on Peale’s garden, see David C. Ward, 'Charles Willson Peale’s Farm Belfield: Enlightened Agriculture in the Early Republic' in "New Perspectives on Charles Willson Peale."
(19) Peale’s legacy was passed on to his children as well. He trained his children in art (Raphaelle and Rembrandt made the most significant contributions) and in curatorial practice. While the Peale Museum in Philadelphia sold its collection and closed its doors in 1849, the family tradition continued with Rembrandt’s opening of the Peale Museum in Baltimore in 1814, and Rubens’ opening of his museum in the Parthenon building in New York City in 1825. One of the most significant artists and curators of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Charles Willson Peale helped to create a national identity in America. For more on the Peale museum legacy, see Charles Coleman Sellers, "Mr. Peale’s Museum: Charles Willson Peale and the first popular museum of natural science and art," New York: Norton, 1980; Edward P. Alexander, "Museum Masters: their museums and their influence," Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1983; and David R. Brigham, "Public Culture in the early republic: Peale’s Museum and its audience," Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1995.
-Letha Clair Robertson 11.18.03
Image credit: Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741–1827), Self-Portrait, about 1791, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; frame conserved with funds from the Smithsonian Women's Committee, NPG.89.205, Photograph courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, © CC0