Peale, Rembrandt

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(b. near Richboro, Pennsylavania, 22 February 1778; d. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 3 October 1960)

natural history, technology.

Rembrandt Peale was the son of Rachel Brewer Peale and Charles Wilson Peale, adistinguished American artist also noted for the innovative scientific displays at his Philadelphia museum. The family held a respected position in local society; but the museum expenses, an erratic income from Charles Peal’s portraiture and the large number of children created occasional financial strains. Rembrandt Peale received an elementary education in the local private schools and learned to paint and draw under the casual guidance of his older siblings, with more structured tutelage later from his father and other Philadelphia-based artists. He married Eleanora Mary Short in 1798; they had ten children.

About 1801 Peale attended James Woodhouse’s chemistry course at the University of Pennsylvania in order to learn to use pigments more effectively. He continued his education abroad, studying with Benjamin West in London during 1802–1803 and with several French artists from 1808 to 1810. These Joseph banks and Georges Cuvier and on the chemistry of porcelain tints from Alexandre Brongniart. Peale led a nomadic life until he finally settled in Philadelphia in 1834. He lived and painted in Baltimore (1796–1801, 1814–1802), Philadelphia (1803–1808, 1811–1814, 1823–1825), New York (1820–1823, 1825–1828, 1830–1832), Italy (1828–1830), and England (1832–1834). In 1840, four years after his first wife died, he married Harriet Cany.

Although Peale is known to American historians mainly for his portraits, many of which were of scientists, he also contributed to zoology and technology. His interest in inventions began in 1785, when he saw John Fitch’s steamboat; and in 1807 he visited Robert Fulton and watched some of his early steam navigation experiments. Peale’s reminiscences of these events, written in 1848, constitute a minor histórical source on steamboat development. Peale experimented with the gas lighting of Baltimore’s streets and buildings in 1816–1820. He also had an abiding interest in technological developments in the fine arts. Besides studying the chemistry of pigments, he was among the first Americans to experiment with lithography in the 1820’s; and he is credited with importing from France the encaustic method of painting, in which pigments are fixed in wax rather than in oils.

Peale’s fascination with natural history was evident in his earliest published material, some poems celebrating the wonders of science, included in a pamphlet printed by his father (1800). His important scientific work began in 1801, when he accompanied his father to the peat bogs of Orange County, New York, where they excavated the skeletons of mastodons. Peale helped reassemble the bones of one skeleton for display in his father’s Philadelphia museum and used the rest of the material to make a second skeleton for a traveling exhibit, which he showed in New York and London in 1802. He wrote three descriptions of the creature to accompany his exhibit, a single sheet published in New York (1802) and two pamphlets printed in London (1802, 1803). In each essay Peale argued with increasing assurance that the teeth were those of a carnivorous animal. He announced in the 1803 pamphlet (pp. 38–39) that an artist “will sooner and with more certainty, establish the character of skeletons, than the most learned anatomist, whose eye has not been accustomed to seize on every peculiarity.…” Cuvier’s study of mastodons’ however, reestablished the scientific hegemony of the anatomist over the artist by convincing naturalists of the herbivorous function of the animals’ teeth. A more enduring part of Peale’s third essay was the dramatic narrative of how the skeletons were unearthed; the story was a captivating prose analogue to his father’s painting “Exhuming the Mastodon” (1806–1808).

John D. Godman, who had married Peale’s daughter Angelica in 1821, quoted his father-in-law’s narrative of the excavation in his three-volume American Natural History (Philadelphia, 1826–1828), a work on mammals written for a popular audience. Godman’s text, which was reprinted often through 1862, plus the excerpts from Peale’s publications that appeared in English and American journals, made Peale’s account known to a diverse readership of several generations. Peale also publicized the mastodon by displaying the skeleton at the museum he founded at Baltimore in 1814; it remained there until the museum’s dissolution in 1830. In 1824 Peale published a brief piece on reproduction in the opossum, but it was a flawed study based on an observation of only a few animals. Peale’s histórical importance to American science remained his interest in technology and his popularizing of the mastodon.


I. Original Works. The Charles Willson Peale Papers project at the National Portrait Gallery is preparing a definitive microfilm and selective letterpress ed. of the correspondence and unpublished MSS of Rembrandt Peale, his brothers, and their father. The staff has created biographical and bibliographical files that were useful in writing this article.

Rembrandt Peale’s poems about science appeared in Charles W. Peale, Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures on the Science of Nature (Philadelphia, 1800). His first piece on the mastodon was A short Account of the Behemoth or Mammoth (New York, 1802); a copy of this broadside is at the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia. The London pamphlets were Account of the Skeleton of the Mammoth, a Non-De-script Carnivorous Animal of Immense Size, Found in America (1802); and An Historical Disquisition on the Mammoth, or Great American Incognitum, an Extinct, Immense, Carnivorous Animal, whose Fossil Remains Have Been Found in North America (1803). For citations to excerpts printed from these works, see Max Meisel, Bibliography of American Natural History; The Pioneer Century, 1796–1865, III (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1929), 363–365; and Robert Hazen, Bibliography of American-Published Geology; 1669–1850 (Boulder, Colo.. 1976), entries 10296–10299. Peale’s last scientific article was “Interesting Facts Relative to the Opossum,” in Philadelphia Muséum,1 (1824), 6–8, His recollections of the steamboat appeared in “Letter From Mr. Rembrandt Peale to a Member… January 13, 1848,” in Collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylyania,1 (1853), 734–736.

II. Secondary Literature.The Dictionary of American Biography is a convenient source; but for accuracy and detail on any member of the Peale family, Charles C. Sellers, Charles Willson Peale, 2 vols, (Philadelphia, 1939–1947), is more dependable. It lists Peale’s publications on nonscientific topics and also cites earlier biographical sources, many of which are not reliable. Other useful assessments are Wilbur Harvey Hunter, The Peale Muséum (Baltimore, 1964); and Detroit Institute of Arts, The Peale Family (Detroit, 1967).

Michele L. Aldrich

Rembrandt Peale

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Rembrandt Peale

The American painter Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) was a competent, if uneven, portraitist. His earlier portraits are fresher and more expressive than his later ones.

Rembrandt Peale was born in Bucks County, Pa., on Feb. 22, 1778. He studied first with his father, the renowned painter, Charles Willson Peale, and then with Benjamin West in England in 1801. He returned to the United States in 1804 and set up a studio in Philadelphia. An important work of this period is the graceful, richly handled portrait of Thomas Jefferson (1805) at the age of 62.

Peale made two trips to France, in 1808 and 1809-1810, carrying letters from Jefferson, an intimate of his father. Peale came to know the painters Jacques Louis David and François Gérard, the sculptor Antonio Canova, and the American émigré painter John Vanderlyn. In Paris, Peale painted portraits of famous men for his father's museum. His work was sometimes marred by a hard linear quality, as he tried to rival the smooth, silky quality of David, but sometimes it had a beautiful mellow tone.

Peale was instrumental in founding the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with his father, whom he succeeded as director in 1810. Dominating the academy's show of 1812 was his first historical painting, The Roman Daughter. The subject was daring: an imprisoned father kept alive by milk from his daughter's breast. He executed several "porthole" paintings of George Washington, the best known being the one he executed in 1822.

In 1825 Peale was elected president of the American Academy of the Fine Arts. Later he established a museum and picture gallery in Baltimore, Md. For several years, in mid-career, he taught art in Philadelphia public schools. In 1853 his instruction book, Graphics: The Art of AccurateDelineation, was published. He died in Philadelphia on Oct. 3, 1860.

Peale's most ambitious painting was The Court of Death (1820), a huge canvas containing 23 allegorical figures. Based on "Death," a poem by Beilby Porteus, it depicted Faith, Hope, Virtue, and Pleasure, who had been posed for by his daughters, and Old Age, modeled on his father. Death was a hooded figure at whose feet a young man had been struck down. The dramatic contrast of lights and darks was typical of the romantic period in art, especially in Europe, but the allegorical mode was part of the sentiment of the republican era in America. The work was sent on tour as a "great moral painting."

Further Reading

A short sketch of Peale's life is in Municipal Museum of Baltimore, An Exhibition of Paintings by Rembrandt Peale (1937). There is information on him in Charles Coleman Sellers, Charles Willson Peale (2 vols., 1947; 1 vol., rev. ed. 1969), and Charles H. Elam, comp., The Peale Family: Three Generations of American Artists (1967). For a good discussion of Peale and the general historical background see Oliver W. Larkin, Art and Life in America (1949; rev. ed. 1960).

Additional Sources

Miller, Lillian B., In pursuit of fame: Rembrandt Peale, 1778-1860, Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992. □

Peale, Rembrandt

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(b. near Richboro Pennsylvania, 22 February 1778; d. Philadephia, Pennsylvaia, 3 October 1860)


For a detailed only of his life and work, see Supplement.