Peale, Charles Willson

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(b. Queen Anne’s country, Maryland, 15 April 1741; d. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 22 February 1827)

museum direction.

Eldest of the five children of Charles Peale, sometime clerk in the General Post Office, London, and Margaret Triggs of Annapolis, Maryland, Peale grew up in Chestertown, Maryland, where his father was master of the Kent Country school. Deciding at the age of twenty-one that painting might be more profitable than saddlemaking, for which he had been trained, he sought instruction from John Hesselius in Maryland and from John Singleton Copley in Boston. Thereafter he displayed such skill in his portraits of the Maryland gentry that in 1767 several joined to send him abroad for two years to study under Benjamin West, who was later historical painter to George III. In 1776 Peale settled in Philadelphia, the largest and wealthiest city in the British colonies. During the American Revolution, Peale, a zealous patriot, served as a militia officer in the campaign of Trenton and Princeton (1776–1777) and the defense of Philadelphia (1777–1778); and as a “furious Whig” he took a prominent role in political controversies of the period. All the while he continued to paint — Washington, his officers, and the men of the Revolution are known today largely through Peale’s eyes. With the return of peace Peale’s artistic genius, mechanical skill, and patriotic vision of America’s future found expression in designs for grand public displays, such as Philadelphia’s Procession of 4 July 1788.

A commission to make drawings of bones of a prehistoric creature from the banks of the Ohio River gave Peale the idea of establishing a natural history museum. It was first in the United States, for the American Museum of Pierre Eugène du Simitière, although containing natural history specimens, was primarily historical. The museum was opened in Peale’s house at Third and Lombard Streets in 1786; thereafter, without entirely giving up painting, he devoted his principal energies to it. It was moved in 1794 to the hall of the American Philosophical Society, the members of which took a warm interest in it and seemed thereby to endorse Peale’s plans; and in 1802 it was established in the State House (now Independence Hall). Most of the exhibits were gifts or deposits (for instance, specimens collected by Lewis and Clark presented by President Jefferson); others were secured by Peale himself, most notably the nearly complete skeletons of two mastodons from Orange County, New York, in 1801. When the museum collections were sold in 1848 and 1854 the catalog listed 1,824 birds, 250 quadrupeds, 650 fish, 135 reptiles, lizards, and tortoises, 269 portraits, and thirty-three cases of shells.

Peale’s museum demonstrated sound principles of scientific exposition. The exhibits were arranged according to the modified Linnaean system, from fossils and insects to “animal man” (although Peale never obtained a preserved specimen of Homo sapiens); and as far as possible they were shown in their natural forms, attitudes, and backgrounds, which Peale as painter readily provided, Special attention was directed to likenesses between species and to distinctive features: a rattlesnake, for example, was mounted with its jaws open and a glass was placed so that all might see the fangs and venom sacs.

Peale viewed the museum as an element in a reformed system of education suitable for virtuous republicans and hoped it would become a national institution, comparable with the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, with salaried staff lecturers laboratories, and publications. This would have required greater support than the federal government was prepared to give, Peale had, therefore to depend on admission charges, which, although they produced a satisfactory income, constantly exposed the museum — especially when Peale was not personally in charge —to pressures to compromise with scientific integrity. The museum was a school for such young naturalists as Alexander Wilson, John D. Godman and Richard Harlan, who drew upon its collections for their earliest researches. Similar institutions were established in Baltimore and New York by Peale’s sons Rubens and Rembrandt; and catchpenny imitations which did not scorn, as Peale’s museum did, to “catch the eye of the gaping multitude,” sprang up throughout the country after 1820. These cabinets of jumbled curiosities gave a few young men an introduction to science, but they misled many as to science’s nature and scope and fell far short of Peale’s goal.

Peale was married three times; to Rachel Brewer of Annapolis in 1762; to Elizabeth DePeyster of New York, in 1791; and to Hannah Moore of Philadelphia, in 1805. From the two first marriages he had seventeen children, of whom eleven reached maturity. Most of them displayed artistic talents of high order; two — Titian Ramsay and Franklin — achieved distinction in natural history and mechanics, respectively.


Peale’s paintings have been listed and illustrated in Charles Coleman Sellers, “Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale” and “Charles Willson Peale With Patron and Populace,” in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s.42 pt. 1 (1952), and 59 , pt. 3 (1969), respectively. The contents of the museum are described in Peale and A. F. M. J. Palisot de Beauvois, A Scientific and Descriptive Catalogue of the Peale’s Museum (Philadelphia, 1796); and Peale’s Guide to the Philadelphia Museum (Philadelphia, 1804). Peale explained his purpose and philosophy in Introduction to a Course of Lectures on Natural History (Philadelphia, 1800). His letter books, diary, autobiography, and other MSS are in the American Philosophical Society library.

Charles Coleman Sellers, Charles Willson Peale (New York, 1969), based upon a lifetime of study, is a sufficient introduction to, as well as the last authority on, the subject and its sources.

Whitfield J. Bell, JR.

Peale, Charles Willson (1741-1827)

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Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827)



Artist of the Revolution. Charles Willson Peale used his art to further the cause of the American Revolution and to further his goal of making American art accessible to all people rather than the wealthy few.

Early Life. Born in Queen Annes County, Maryland, Charles Willson Peale started out as a saddler before becoming an itinerant artist. Peale received formal artistic training in 1767, when he traveled to London and studied with painter Benjamin West. After returning to the colonies in 1769 he soon achieved success as a leading portrait painter. In 1772 he painted one of his best-known works, the first portrait of George Washington. With the outbreak of the Revolution, Peale eagerly took part in the revolutionary cause. He volunteered for the militia in August 1776 and participated actively in revolutionary politics, serving on various government committees in Philadelphia between 1777 and 1780. Peale also expressed his revolutionary sympathies in his art, turning his paintings into propaganda for the revolutionary cause.

Public Art. Peales patriotic employment of his talents was consistent with his concept of public art, which he believed should serve and be supported by the public. He advocated government subsidies for artists as an alternative to the traditional reliance on the patronage of wealthy individuals. In keeping with this ideal, Peale requested and received government support to construct a triumphal arch in Philadelphia for a celebration of the Treaty of Paris in January 1784. This structure consisted of three arches adorned with Ionic columns and transparent panels depicting a wide variety of scenes appropriate to the occasion, ranging from Washington as the American Cincinnatus to a figure representing Confederated America. Illuminating the panels would be more than one thousand lamps. Just before the celebration, however, a rocket placed too close to the paintings set fire to them and burned them all. Although Peale was paid to re-create the arch, the fate of this project foreshadowed the later disappointment of hopes for public art.

Moving Pictures. Peales desire to combine patriotism and profit by creating art with both aesthetic value and popular appeal intensified in the years after the Revolution. One attempt to fulfill this goal was the exhibition of moving pictures he opened in Philadelphia in 1785. Using special machinery and lighting in combination with transparent pictures of scenes from history, nature, and literature, Peale was able to create the illusion of movement. He hoped that such innovations would attract a mass audience for his art not only from a desire for personal profit but also as a means to reconcile art with republican ideals. By exposing the people to the arts, Peale hoped to refute the traditional association between artistic development and social decay and establish a place for art in a republican culture. If the goal could be achieved it could free artists from their traditional dependence on wealthy patrons. Peales moving pictures failed to live up to these expectations, however. After a successful start public interest in the exhibition waned, and Peale closed it in 1787.

Later Life. Peale turned his attention to the natural world and focused on a museum of natural history that he had founded the year before. Even the names of his children reflected this change of emphasis. Peale named his four oldest sons after artistsRaphaelle, Rembrandt, Titian, Rubens, and Vandykebut the names of his next two sonsCharles Linnaeus and Benjamin Franklinrecognized men who had made achievements in the sciences. Increasingly absorbed by his work for his natural-history museum, Peale declared his retirement from painting on 24 April 1794, hoping to clear the field for his sons Raphaelle and Rembrandt, who had become artists themselves. Yet Peale did not abandon art altogether. He continued to promote American artistic development and took the lead in establishing the Columbianum, a fine-arts academy founded by and for artists. Peale hoped this academy would promote the instruction and professional advancement of artists of all sorts, but, weakened by internal divisions from the start, the Columbianum did not long survive its first exhibition in 1795. In 1804 Peale returned to painting and continued to be active until his death in 1827.


Joseph J. Ellis, After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture (New York: Norton, 1979);

Edgar P. Richardson, Brooke Hindle, and Lillian B. Miller, Charles Willson Peale and His World (New York: Abrams, 1983);

Charles Coleman Sellers, Charles Willson Peale (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1947).

Charles Willson Peale

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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.

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.

Further Reading

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 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. □

Peale, Charles Willson

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Peale, Charles Willson

PEALE, CHARLES WILLSON. (1741–1827). Portrait painter, naturalist, Patriot. Maryland. Born on 15 April 1741 in Queen Anne's County, Maryland, Charles Willson Peale was son of a forger who had been shipped to America in 1735 as a punishment for his crimes. Charles Peale became a saddler, but his success as an amateur portrait painter encouraged him to seek instruction in art, and in 1767 he was accepted as a student of Benjamin West, in London. Three years later he returned to Maryland and soon was established as a portrait painter in the middle provinces. Early in 1776 he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where many prominent Patriots subsequently sat for him.

Peale enlisted in the Philadelphia militia in 1776 and was elected lieutenant. After taking part in the Trenton-Princeton campaign, he was promoted to captain of the Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment of Foot. Until the British evacuation of Philadelphia, Captain Peale served with the army, and while in uniform he painted many miniatures of American officers. He also held a number of public offices, being chairman of the Constitutional Society and a representative in the Pennsylvania General Assembly from 1779 to 1781. Identified with the radical democrats, Peale lost his wealthier clients, forcing him to abandon politics entirely in 1787.

During the post-war depression he started engraving mezzotints of his portraits. At this time he also developed an interest in natural history after recovering and making drawings of two skeletons of mammoths. His art gallery became a repository of natural curiosities, and evolved into the Philadelphia Museum. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts owed its establishment in 1805 largely to Peale's efforts. Peale is best known for his many pictures of Washington. An estimated 60 such pictures were created between 1776 and 1795, and seven of these were done from life. Peale died in Philadelphia on 22 February 1827.


Miller, Lillian B., et al., eds., Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family. 5 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983–2000.

Sellers, Charles C. Charles Willson Peale. New York: Scribner's, 1969.

                              revised by Michael Bellesiles

Peale, Charles Willson

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Peale, Charles Willson (1741–1827) US painter, inventor, naturalist, and father of a family of artists. In 1782, Peale opened the USA's first art gallery, in Philadelphia, where he exhibited his own portraits. He later expanded the gallery into the country's first natural history museum. In 1795, he painted his most celebrated picture, The Staircase Group, a portrait of two of his sons.

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