Charles Willson Peale, a prolific Renaissance man, gave us fine portraits of our Founding Fathers and this is the week to take a closer look at Peale’s life in work in celebration of Independence Day. Peale was a well-known 19th century American painter.
Charles Willson Peale self portrait with daughter Angelica.
But did you know he was also a scientist? Or that he was a naturalist? Or a soldier and a politician who founded one of our first museums? I didn’t know any of that until I decided to feature his work as an American 19th century painter. His story is a bit romantic in itself.
In July, this blog will feature Southern artists of the 19th century. As an aside, when I chose to focus on this area, a search on an infamous search engine yielded little information. If I didn’t know better I would think their corporate policy was to ignore all things Southern. Imagine that!
Peale’s Early Life
Peale was born in 1741 in Chester, Maryland. He was apprenticed to a saddle maker, then eventually opened his own saddle shop. He was beset by two problems: he wasn’t good at his work and Tory Loyalists were aghast when he joined the Sons of Liberty so they made sure he went bankrupt.
Oddly enough, Peale wasn’t good at working with his hands. After trying several occupations, for which he was not well suited, he decided to paint. That brought a shift in the output of his hands. His talent was readily apparent when he used a brush with paint on a canvas. He found his calling in life, especially by painting portraits.
He began his studies with two of his era’s greatest painters, John Hesselius and John Singleton Copley. Peale’s friends were kind enough to raise enough money for him to travel to England and study under the renowned artist Benjamin West, which he did for three years.
At the end of his studies, Peale returned to the United States and settled in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1770 near many of the players in our formation as a country. He wasn’t satisfied with being that far from the real action, so he moved to Philadelphia in 1776. This decision would result in solidifying his reputation.
Revolutionary Figures by Peale
Peale created some of his greatest portraits by painting the men who wrote our Declaration of Independence. His work features men of towering reputation from America and Europe. He bought an estate in Philadelphia, began raising money for militias, joined one, and became a captain in the Pennsylvania Militia.
While serving in the field, he painted the portraits of many Continental Army soldiers. This work was done in miniature, but he later created larger paintings of those people and scenes. He served as a representative in the Pennsylvania State assembly for one year, beginning in 1779.
Returning to painting
After his one year term of office, Peale found his way back home and took up full time painting again. Peale painted the greats such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Varnum and John Hancock.
His most famous subject was George Washington, whose portrait he first painted in 1772. Over the course of several years Peale painted almost 60 portraits of Washington.
Here is an art news tidbit: in 2006, Peale’s work Washington at Princeton fetched an astonishing $21.3 million dollars at auction. This was the highest amount ever paid for an American portrait.
Peale’s Museums and bones
Earlier I mentioned that Peale was a great naturalist. He founded the Philadelphia Museum, which became the Peale museum. Peale’s interest in natural history led him to help fund a scientific exhibition. The items brought back to Philadelphia formed the genesis of the museum.
From stuffed birds (from taxidermy) to fossils, the museum featured a wealth of interesting items. It was the first museum in America to feature mastodon bones. Peale also arranged an exchanged program of natural history items between his museum and the Finbury Museum on Finbury Road in London.
Big bone of contention
Jefferson and Comte de Buffon clashed over the mastodon bones in the museum. Jefferson, another great naturalist and Renaissance man, claimed America had a great biodiversity than Europe.
The Comte, steeped in his European heritage, argued otherwise. In the end, it was the great Peale Museum that brought attention to the debate and itself. The museum had several physical homes, but eventually it went under.
Peale needed a massive infusion of cash and was unable to get government funding to keep it open. Don’t say it, I know. We fund stupid things now, but he couldn’t get help then. The collection was sold off.
In addition to being a prolific painter, Peale was a prolific procreator. He and his first wife, Rachel Brewer, had 10 children. Peale insisted upon naming all his children after painters he admired, including women. From Rembrandt to Miss Angelica Kaufman, the children bore famous names. Many went on to become artists or naturalists themselves.
Upon Rachel’s death, Peale married Miss Elizabeth de Peyster, with whom he had six more children. His success as an artist was absolutely needed in order to feed his large family. When Elizabeth died, Peale married his third wife, Hannah More, a Quaker.
He needed another wife to care for his brood, especially the younger children. They remained married until Peale’s death in 1827. Peale was an Episcopalian, as were so many other early Founding Fathers, and he was buried in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Cemetery.
As a Renaissance man, Peale was knowledgeable in everything from carpentry to painting. After 1802 partnered with John Hawkins, the inventor of the physiogno trace, a handy mechanical drawing device. Peale’s job was to help market the device. As part of his work, he corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, giving a detailed explanation of how the system functioned. Those papers are still among Jefferson’s personal papers.
Peale authored books and continued his interest in science up to his death. Several of his children became famous artists in their own right. And his brother-in law Nathaniel Ramsey was one of the delegates to the Confederation Delegation.
Peale’s enormous legacy consists of art, science, museum founding, right up to owning the patent for the first polygraph machine. He was working, thinking, dreaming and inventing all the time. He left us a vastly richer nation because he lived.
Why am I doing this?
My hope is that featuring different artists, asking questions about what made them great, and passing on the information to you inspires you. All of this is so much grist for the mill for my upcoming books. If I have no knowledge about fine art and what makes people important, you won’t believe much of what I write about in my books.
Especially if my sweet ladies are supposed to be owners of art galleries or work in a museum.
I love doing this research and learning more and more about different American artists and it is my sincere wish that you love these things as well. We can enjoy the art and the artist!
Have a great week!