Meet Southern Artist and Scientist Charles Willson Peale

 

   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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Painting Studies

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.

Thomas Jefferson by Peale

Thomas Jefferson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

George Washington by Peale

George Washington at Princeton

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.

Peale at his museum

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.

Family life

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.

Elizabeth dePeyster Peale

Legacy

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!

 

 

Treasures, Antiquities and Art Historians

 

Treasures, treasures everywhere, nor any art to hang up on the walls. With my apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge on his epic 1797 poem The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. That is an epic poem due to its length; stolen art is epic in its quantity, quality and the length of time between theft and retrieval. If there is a retrieval. It keeps all those art historians on their toes. Whether it is stolen paintings, antiquities swiped from war torn countries, sculpture that sneaks out under cover of dark, the art history folks keep their eyes opened for all these items.

And, of course, the police. I subscribe to a few blogs that relate in some fashion to art, art history, stolen art, recovering said stolen art, and so on. The information available to read on these topics is a mountain that is hard to scale when you dawdle along as I seem to do. I literally cannot keep up with all the articles that land in my inbox. I can only imagine what art curators must deal with daily. In order to be on the lookout for stolen art, one must first know what is missing from homes, galleries, museums, transportation hubs and private viewings.

The latest blog that caught my eye was from the ARCA blog. ARCA stands for Art la di da and so on find out what this means. The blog highlights the Italian police, known as the Carabinieri, who diligently chase down all the lovely and irreplaceable artworks stolen from Italian soil. The Italians have a finely-honed police art squad, if you will, completely dedicated to the successful return of all stolen items. Italians take art as seriously as food, water and wine. Italians are rightfully proud of their heritage from music to paintings to sculpture to architecture. Their art curators authenticate so much work every day, curate it, and help sell it legally to buyers and collectors, you would think they don’t have time to deal with thefts of art. But all those art thefts are exactly what ruins their galleries, museums, all public buildings, and private collections.

Fabrizio Rossi Luogotenente presso Arma dei Carabineri Photo: UNESCO

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Italian Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale publishes bulletins to inform the public about stolen art because it has proven to help to curb art theft and trafficking. Brigadier General Fabrizio Parulli, the Carabinieri TPC Commander said in the 38th edition of the bulletin:

“We believe that what has been stolen must not be considered as lost forever. On the contrary, we regard it as held hostage by offenders who can and must be defeated by the Italian and the international police force, together with the Ministry of Cultural Heritage Activities and Tourism, the art dealers and all the citizens.”

Clearly you should never steal from the Italians because they will run you to ground in order to retrieve their artwork!

This year the group sponsored a conference entitled “Art Held Hostage” for people who work in law enforcement, academia, galleries, museums, auction houses and the art market. The conference included descriptions of all the artwork stolen this year that has yet to be recovered. There is no end to the work, apparently, for people trying to gain back the works that are a major component of cultural heritage.

Museum of the Missing bySimon Houpt. The book details stolen artwork that has not been recovered.

The problem is obviously not unique to Italy, or even Europe. Art thefts, artifacts and antiquities thefts, criminal networks and willing buyers operate on every continent. Whether it is a Chinese Ming vase, a pre-Columbian artifact from South America, a painting from the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, thieves are working everywhere, under all conditions, to unlawfully earn a buck.

This brings me to what is going on with the characters in my own work. All this information is just so juicy. Unfortunately, I am not writing a definitive academic work on the nature of art and antiquities thefts. My work must curtail all that exploration into dark corners and pick something manageable. It’s been fun to read, ponder, and look out the window. But now it’s time to decide what must actually make its way into a story that is believable to you, dear readers, and entice you to continue reading. So, alas, you won’t be reading all the latest from the world of criminal art sales. There will be fun information, chases to catch the thieves, and many moments of love and longing. These books are, after all, about romance, not just skullduggery and shenanigans.

A little sneak peek might be in order here. One of my characters in one of the books is a woman who owns an art gallery. She tends to specialize in nineteenth century American painters, especially those who paint landscapes. That idea has led me to some very pleasure time spent on the website of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Their website could hold you captive for hours. There is so much to view from their collection. Naturally, I kept viewing and viewing. But viewing isn’t writing, said the inner voice. So, I reluctantly left the website to return to writing.

What I learned was so interesting I decided to share some of it with you in these blogs. The other aspect of all this viewing is to share actual photos of the artwork that has caught my attention. You will also get to see some magnificent examples of American painting. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. So, I will share pictures for your entertainment and edification. Mostly for the entertainment.

My hope is you find all these tidbits intriguing enough to stay around and read. You need something positive in your day, which viewing art can provide. You need a puzzle to solve, which reading about art thefts, antiquities stolen, and the hair pulling of art historians can provide. Sounds like a good mix we can enjoy together.

Have a wonderful week. I hope this inspires you to go online and find artwork you like and learn something about it. Happy viewing and reading!

Art History Helps Preserve Our Heritage

 

Art history helps preserve and protect our western heritage and that is reason enough to study it. That is a bold statement and I’ll be happy to buttress that with some real-life examples. And the reason for all this? Well, I have all these characters and ideas for story lines that involved history, art, music, dance and so on. We need all those art historians, or curators as they are now known. And we need art history studies in our education tool kit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isabella Gardner Museum Italian Room, Boston, Massachusetts

People who went to college to get a good liberal arts educational background intended to be well-informed, well-rounded in their knowledge and skills, and to understand what makes Western Civilization so special. Also, for those of us who have studied art history, we know it brings delight and a joyful attitude about life. Learning to love art can bring appreciation for the beauty found in all our world.

God gave us a beautiful place to live and humans have been expressing themselves in relation to that beauty. We don’t have to be historians or art majors to appreciate art history. What we need is curiosity and an appreciation for all the things that help make our lives more beautiful. Do you wax poetic over the city dump? Not likely. What about a photo or painting of a spectacular sunset? Much more likely. In fact, I doubt many romances were born from poetry extolling the virtues of the dung heap. Rose gardens? Yep, I’m pretty sure that was done. Also, some comparisons to roses made their way into poetry. And paintings. And maybe a play or movie or book.

Art History-Van Gogh Vase

Van Gogh Vase

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These are all trappings of our great civilization. As we study the art mankind has created ancient statuary and drawings to the photography now widely available, we see that our forebears have allowed the beauty of life to capture their imaginations. They were compelled to display their love of life in some way that we could all enjoy. And we are just as compelled to honor that endeavor by preserving it. As scholars and ordinary people have studied art history and the making of art in all the ages, we bind together our human experiences. We portray the innocence of children and the pain of lost love. We showcase our pets and our landscapes. A trotting horse catches our eye, while the paintings of flowers bring smiles to our faces.

Art History-Pissarro Art

 

 

 

 

Art can make us cherish the ordinary and fall hopelessly in love with the exquisitely beautiful. Personally, I am completely taken by paintings of flowers. They speak to my soul of summer days and the scent of life wafting in the air. It is easy for me to draft a major character who has studied and analyzed thousands of paintings. Sculpture might be your interest and if so, who wouldn’t be moved by the work of Michelangelo? His David or The Pieta would bring tears to your eyes from the sheer beauty and realism of these works.

Right now I am working out the plotting for a book featuring a main character who owns an art gallery. Some of my time every day is spent immersed in looking at the collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. These are some my best moments every day. I love to look at artwork. My favorite is paintings, but I have an eye for sculpture as well. If I could twitch my nose and go to Italy for the purpose of traipsing through galleries and museums I would be the happiest woman in America. Since that isn’t going to happen this month, I content myself with online ogling. It’s all I can do to keep from ordering prints. But I digress….

Art history might seem like some esoteric major to you because you studied something else. But I ask you to answer this: do you appreciate all the benefits of what our civilization has preserved and handed to you? People who are thinking about the larger issues of life have been telling us what they believe and think for a couple of millennia. Contemplating the nature of mankind and life itself is not something relegated to the leisure class. If that were true, how would you explain all those lovely cave drawings in France? People have been thinking and embellishing their lives for longer than you can imagine.

I love to do needle work of all kinds and once upon a time the Chinese invented the elaborate embroidery we now see. Someone wanted to express him or herself with colored silk on a garment. The concept of wearing art was born and we have been making our garments look more beautiful since then. Next someone took on the task of elaborately decorating household items. From pillows, to hangings, to bedclothes and blankets, throws and furniture upholstery, we made things a work of art rather than plain. We said these things are beautiful because we honor beauty. All those items that ended up in museums and galleries tell us something about what their makers, and by larger inclusion, their culture deemed important or significant in some way or just for the sheer beauty of it.

We see the trappings of a civilization and can deduce something about the people from what they valued. A romp through an art history book or class will show you in concrete terms what built our own Western civilization. When you add the writings and music of different time periods into the mix you begin to see real people, not some dry and dusty tour of the past.

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, (ahem!) I studied history. It was my major and I intended to teach it in a high school. As I explained before, that didn’t happen. But my little people in the books will leave a fun trail to follow in the corners of historical events. When you start reading about art history and other fun facts in the upcoming books, please remember that it is the story of our ancestors and how they viewed the world. And have fun with all of it. I promise not to lecture about it!

Have a happy week and happy Mother’s Day to all the moms. May you be showered with flowers!