Charles Willson Peale

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), American painter and scientist, was a solid and sometimes strikingly original painter, as well as an inventor and a museum founder.

Charles Willson Peale was born in Queen Annes Country, MD, on April 15, 1741. His father was an adventurer from Rutlandshire, England, who emigrated to Maryland after he had been caught embezzling. In Maryland he took a position as a schoolmaster and married. He died, leaving no inheritance, when Charles was 9, and the boy and his mother were forced to fend for themselves. At the age of 13 Charles was apprenticed to a saddler; shortly afterward he learned watchmaking. By the time he was 21 and married, he had added clock-making and upholstering to his repertoire and had taught himself painting after having been inspired by an amateur artist.

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Successful Portraitist

Peale received some instruction from the Maryland artist John Hessalius. In 1766 wealthy citizens of Maryland raised £83 to send him to London to further his training in art, studying with Benjamin West. He remained until 1769. While there he painted an elaborately symbolical portrait, Pitt as a Roman Senator. On his return Peale settled in Annapolis. In 1772 he painted the first portrait ever done of George Washington. The exuberance of the Peale family and their warmth toward one another is recorded in the Peale Family (1773), which includes the artist, his wife, mother, brothers, sister, his old nurse, and an unidentified baby. Peale had such great success as a Portraitist just prior to the Revolution that he was able to move his business to Philadelphia. His portraiture combines a freshness and affability with a certain naive stiffness.

Peale served with distinction in the Revolution. As a first lieutenant in the militia, he crossed the Delaware with Washington and spent the dreadful winter at Valley Forge, where he did miniatures of some 40 officers. He gained the intimate friendship of Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.

In 1781 Peale added an exhibition gallery to his Philadelphia studio, where he housed 44 of his portraits of outstanding American leaders. His wife died in the 1790s as a result of her eleventh pregnancy, and Peale soon remarried. In all, he fathered 17 sons and daughters, who were named after famous painters chosen from the pages of a dictionary of painters.

Peale liked to present a tour de force in some paintings. The Staircase Group (1795) shows his sons Titian Ramsay and Raphaelle, life-size, climbing a narrow stairway. The painting was exhibited in a doorframe as a trompe l'oeil, and the shadows the figures cast and an accurately painted card on a step added to the effect. On one occasion, Peale's desire for novelty took a macabre turn. In Rachel Weeping (1772) he shows his first wife weeping over her dead child prominently laid out in the foreground. In the portrait of his brother James (1822) the sitter is shown in a novel way: he is seated at his desk at night, his face illuminated by a lamp.

Scientific Interests

Throughout his lifetime Peale maintained an enduring and active interest in many branches of science. He did silhouettes with the physiognotrace, a machine used to record profiles. He patented a fireplace, porcelain false teeth, and a new kind of wooden bridge; perfected the polygraph, a kind of portable writing desk which could make several copies of a manuscript at once; invented a rude motion picture technique; and wrote papers on engineering, hygiene, and other subjects.

In 1786 Peale established the first scientific museum in America. It contained living species of snakes, turtles, toads, and fish as well as stuffed birds and animals. The crowning touch was an entire mastodon skeleton, which he helped excavate on a farm in upstate New York in 1801. He depicted this event in an extraordinary painting, The Exhuming of the Mastodon (1806-1808). It contains 75 figures and shows the great wheel used to lift the water from the marl pit where the bones were embedded, the plank room, and the army tent where the excavators slept. It is loosely classified as one of the first American genre pieces. In the painting The Artist in His Museum (1822) Peale shows himself lifting a curtain to reveal the contents of his museum.

Peale fought to have his museum established as a state institution, and in 1802 it was transferred to the upper floor of the State House (the present Independence Hall). He established the Columbianum in 1795, America's first public exhibition of both modern paintings and the Old Masters. Out of this he organized the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which received its charter in 1806 and which stands today as the oldest art school in America. He died in Philadelphia on Feb. 22, 1827.

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Further Reading on Charles Willson Peale

Charles Coleman Sellers, Charles Willson Peale (2 vols., 1947; 1 vol., rev. ed. 1969), is an extremely lively and well-documented account, with ample quotations from Peale's elaborate "Letterbooks." Peale is discussed in Charles H. Elam, comp., The Peale Family: Three Generations of American Artists (1967). For general background see Oliver W. Larkin, Art and Life in America (1949; rev. ed. 1960).

Additional Biography Sources

Peale, Charles Willson, Charles Willson Peale and his world, New York: H.N. Abrams, 1983.

Sellers, Charles Coleman, Mr. Peale's Museum: Charles Willson Peale and the first popular museum of natural science and art, New York: Norton, 1980.