Peale Sisters

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Peale Sisters

Portrait and still-life painters who widened the opportunities for American women as professional artists.

Peale, Anna Claypoole (1791–1878). Name variations: Anna Peale; Anna Staughton; Anna Duncan. Pronunciation: Peel. Born Anna Claypoole Peale on March 6, 1791, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died in Philadelphia on December 25, 1878; first daughter of James Peale (1749–1831, a painter) and Mary Claypoole Peale (1753–1829); learned painting from father and encouraged by her famous uncle, Charles Willson Peale; married Reverend Dr. William Staughton, in 1829; married General William Duncan, in 1841 (died 1864); no children.

Painted miniature portraits and still lifes; exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA, 1811–42); elected to membership (Academician) in the PAFA (1842); was a popular miniature painter (1820–41); did work in Baltimore, Boston, Washington, D.C., but primarily in Philadelphia.


Self-Portrait (Art Institute of Chicago, 1818); Marianne Beckett (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1829); Gen. Andrew Jackson (Yale University Art Gallery, 1819); James Peale, Mrs. James Peale, Rembrandt Peale , and Nathaniel Kinsman (1820–24, R.W. Norton Art Gallery, Shreveport); Rosalba Peale (Detroit Institute of Arts, 1820); Mrs. Andrew Jackson (Ladies Hermitage Association, Nashville, 1819); Edgar Allan Poe (Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1834); Miss Susannah Williams (Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 1825).

Peale, Margaretta Angelica (1795–1882). Born Margaretta Angelica Peale on October 1, 1795, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died in Philadelphia on January 17, 1882; second daughter of James Peale (1749–1831, a painter) and Mary Claypoole Peale (1753–1829); never married; no children.

Still life and portrait painter; exhibited Artists' Fund Society and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1828–31).


Catalog Deception (owned by James Ogelsby Peale, 1813); Still Life: Grapes and Pomegranates (Maryland Historical Society); Still Life: Strawberries and Cherries (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts); Still Life (Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1828).

Peale, Sarah Miriam (1800–1885). Name variations: known as Sally. Born Sarah Miriam Peale on May 19, 1800, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died in Philadelphia on February 4, 1885; third daughter of James Peale (1749–1831, a painter) and Mary Claypoole Peale (1753–1829); never married; no children.

Painter of canvas portraits and still lifes (ranging in size from 8×10 to 17×22, both in rectangles and ovals); painted portraits of statesmen in Washington; exhibited annually at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1824–31); elected a member of that institution (1824); moved to Baltimore as a painter of portraits (1825); lived in St. Louis as a painter of portraits and still lifes (1847–78); returned to Philadelphia (1877).

Paintings: earliest known portrait, Self Portrait (collection of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Coleman Sellers, 1818); other portraits include Mrs. Theodore Denny, Sarah Jane Armstrong, John Montgomery , and Mrs. George Henry Keerl (Peale Museum, Baltimore, 1826–35), Edward Johnson Cole, Anthony Thompson, Mrs. George Michael Krebs, Children of Commodore John Daniel Danels and William Hollingsworth (Maryland Historical Society, 1824–36), Henry A. Wise (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1842), Thomas Hart Benton (Missouri Historical Society, 1842); still life paintings include Still Life: Watermelon and Grapes (Maryland Historical Society, 1820), Peaches, Plums & Grapes (Peale Museum, Baltimore), A Slice of Watermelon (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, 1825), Still Life (Reading Public Museum and Art Gallery, 1880); a number of portraits are privately owned (see Wilbur H. Hunter and John Mahey, Miss Sarah Miriam Peale, 1800–1885: Portraits and Still Life , 1967).

The three artist daughters of James Peale and Mary Claypoole Peale grew up among the cultural elite of Philadelphia and were members of that remarkable extended family of Peales, many of whom were artists. James and his brother Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), the doyen of the group, believed that women had as much right as men to realize their creative potential. James, himself a moderately accomplished painter, learned his craft by assisting Charles. The sisters' maternal grandfather, James Claypoole, Sr. (1720–1784) had been the first professional painter in Philadelphia, and their maternal uncle, James Claypoole, Jr. (died c. 1796) was also a painter. The sisters were close to their painter cousins, the children of Charles Willson Peale. The actual schooling of Anna, Margaretta, and Sarah is unknown, but all three were given art instruction by their father. Soon they were allowed to paint backgrounds and such delicacies as drapes and lace for the portraits of James Peale, who suffered from diminishing eyesight. Encouraged by their father and uncle, the sisters created paintings of their own, at first imitating or copying works of Peale family members, and then developing their own subjects and styles. Anna and Sarah discovered they could earn a livelihood at art.

The Peale sisters were pioneers in establishing a niche in professional life for American women. As artists, they had to overcome obstacles. In the early 19th century, women were expected to dabble in the arts but not to do so seriously as professionals. It was the time of the cult of pure womanhood, and women's place was to promote a felicitous domesticity. Paramount was the attendance to household duties. Women artists, not being allowed to study nude models, were not prepared to paint subjects that made up a leading art genre of the time—large-scale historical, Biblical, and allegorical themes.

Anna Claypoole Peale learned how to paint miniatures of watercolor on ivory from cousin Raphaelle Peale and from her father, who thought that this kind of artistic employment was "most suitable for a lady." Anna also studied oil painting with her father. The pictures produced by father and daughter separately under each one's names bear a close resemblance, showing that Anna not only adopted much of the style of her parent, particularly in the handling of skin tones, short and long strokes in painting hair, and dark marks at the end of a mouth to show a slight smile, but also that she probably did much of the work on James Peale's paintings.

After the exhibition of two of her miniatures at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Anna's work was in much demand. A visit to Washington, D.C., lasting from November 1818 through January 1819, as a companion of her father and her uncle and aunt, Charles Willson Peale and Hannah Peale , led to commissions from prominent persons. The lively and carefully detailed countenances on her miniature portraits attracted further clients. Before leaving for the Washington journey, Charles Willson Peale wrote: "my Niece Anna Peale will accompany us, her merrit in mineature-painting brings her into high estimation, and so many Ladies and Gentlemen desire to sett to her that she frequently is obleged to raise in her prices." In Washington, Anna painted portraits of Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel Donelson Jackson , President James Monroe, and other important political leaders, including Richard M. Johnson and John Randolph of Roanoke.

Back in Philadelphia, in spring 1819 Anna and sister Sarah, to gain an artistic mastery of the human form, attended a 15-lecture course in anatomy for sculptors and artists offered by Dr. Calhoun, physician at the Pennsylvania Hospital. "We were much interested in a lecture on the human Scull," wrote Sarah. Besides Philadelphia and Washington, Anna also painted for brief periods in Boston and Baltimore. Her miniatures on ivory were exhibited at the Boston Atheneum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1824, along with Sarah, she was elected an Academician (member) of the latter institution.

The only one of the three sisters to marry, Anna wed Rev. Dr. William Staughton (1770–1829) on August 27, 1829. Staughton, a popular Baptist cleric, had just been appointed president of the Georgetown (Kentucky) Theological College. En route to assume his new position, Staughton died, only three months after the marriage. Anna resumed her painting and continued to exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Occasionally, she did portraits slightly larger than miniature size. She also produced a few still-life paintings that conveyed a stark reality that beckoned for the attention of the viewer.

On June 10, 1841, Anna married General William Duncan (1772–1864), "a gentleman highly esteemed in social life." She gave up painting for marital bliss, but upon her husband's death resumed her work. Throughout her career, Anna executed a number of miniatures of young women, who were usually depicted, as Elsa H. Fine writes, with "widely placed and fully opened eyes … rather long noses," and "pursed lips that turn up at the edges." Anna's Miss Susannah Williams (1825) "varies from her typical production in that the subject was over sixty when she sat for Anna, and the artist captured some of the weariness of old age."

Margaretta Angelica, the least accomplished or prolific of the three artist sisters, gained a fair reputation for the quality of her portraits and still lifes. She also exhibited regularly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, although she did not progress beyond her original talent. Lacking technical ability, she compensated by employing an easy gracefulness and a blunt impression of naiveté. Her still-lifes usually had an emphasis on geometric balance that reflected the Federalist style then predominant in architecture. One of Margaretta's earliest paintings (1813), executed in photographic detail, was Catalog Deception, a copy of a similar work by cousin Raphaelle Peale. An obituary in a Philadelphia newspaper observed that Margaretta had a "superior talent in painting fruit" and that she "possessed a remarkable memory, and was noted for the simplicity and loveliness of her character."

Sarah Miriam Peale was the most successful artist of the women Peales. As did her sisters, she learned to paint from her father. In 1816, she began painting still lifes, exhibiting Flowers the following year at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Her showing of a self-portrait,Portrait of a Lady (1818), brought recognition from the Philadelphia art community. This work set a style for her later portraits, with faces frontal, but with torso in three-quarters profile; the subjects smiled as if ready to break out laughing. Charles Willson Peale said of his niece's self-portrait that it was "wonderfully like." Two years later, he commented, "Sarah has shewn great talents for painting in oil, but she must be spurred on to work by a view of profit, by it she becomes very industrous."

Sarah spent long visits in Baltimore, and in 1825 settled there. During the 1820s, she worked out of a studio in the Peale Museum, established by Charles' son Rembrandt Peale. The younger Peale gave Sarah instruction, which refined her skills. From Rembrandt, Sarah improved her draftsmanship and adopted techniques for skin tone in her portraits, chiefly through diffusing light and producing glossy surfaces. She also honed her talents for depicting lace and other intricate patterns from her study with Rembrandt Peale.

Late in 1818, Sarah joined her father, sister Anna, and Charles and Hannah Peale in Washington. Sarah won some portrait commissions, and "bright of eye and cheek, dressed in the very latest," writes Charles Coleman Sellers, "made a conquering progress that her venerable uncle could only watch with pride." It seems that Sarah, or Sally, as she was called by family and friends, was somewhat of a flirt. Charles Willson Peale observed in 1821 that she "as usual" was "breaking all the beaux' hearts, and won't have any of them." Like Margaretta, Sarah never married.

Sarah stayed in Baltimore until 1847, holding her own in garnering portrait commissions from among the city's substantial middle to upper class. In competition with more noted artists such as Thomas Sully, she executed some 100 portraits during the Baltimore years, including that of Marquis de Lafayette, who gave her four sittings during his 1824–25 tour. During 1841–43, she made portraits of prominent statesmen in Washington, D.C., many of them closely associated with President John Tyler's administration, including Daniel Webster and other Cabinet members and various senators and congressional representatives. Before the Baltimore years, one of the handsomest portraits that she executed was that of John Neal (1793–1876), who for a while had seriously courted her. Neal was an appealing figure for young Sarah's heart, a flamboyant writer of romances and poetry and a staunch woman's rights advocate.

Besides portraits of individuals, Sarah did paintings of family groups—children, mother and child, and husband and wife. Notable in this category is Children of Commodore John Daniel Danels (1826). The five Danels children have happy, playful countenances, while from the shadows two young black slaves peer upon the scene. Unlike her single portraits, which depicted the decorative elegance of clothing but left mostly a void as to accessories and background, the Danels' group portrait shows a full room and its furnishings, including an oriental rug, flowers, and a mantle piece.

In her portraits, Sarah generally gave much attention to costume decoration, which, as Wilbur H. Hunter and John Mahey write, compensated "for a relative lack of genius both as a draftsman and as a colorist." One comes away from a Sarah Peale portrait impressed with "the delight taken in rendering fabrics, fur, bits of jewelry, eye glasses, books and pamphlets … for they give the pictures life and vitality, and a visual interest essential to the success of the compositions."

Sarah painted only a few still lifes during the first part of her career; these paintings sold for one-third less than her portraits. Her favorite motif for the still lifes was fruit, and especially watermelon seeds. Such still lifes, extolling abundance, appealed to the middle class. Sarah's Still-Life: Watermelon and Grapes (1820) is her most famous rendition in this genre. As were the other Peales, Sarah was influenced by Dutch, Flemish, and Spanish still lifes. The translucent watermelon slice and seeds complement the lacy grape leaves, which as a "baroque" protruding element hang over the front side of the table. Mary Lucas Cassell notes that the painting "is a rare example of one early nineteenth-century woman artist's realization of her potential. It appeals to the senses, the intellect, and the imagination, but most important it is Sarah Miriam Peale's triumph—a delightful and uplifting work."

At the invitation of Trusten Polk, a future governor and Democratic senator, and other residents of St. Louis, Sarah, in 1847, went to live in St. Louis, where she resided for the next 31 years. Her portraits were in much demand, but few made their way to Eastern exhibitions; today, most of these paintings are either unlocated or in private collections. A St. Louis newspaper in 1849 said of Sarah's portraits of the local elite that "she has transferred their features to the canvas with an accuracy and life like expression, that cheats the beholder into the belief that he is looking at the original." In the 1860s, Sarah began to concentrate on still-life painting of fruit pieces. In 1859 and 1861, in the category of "Fruit Painting, in Oil," she won first prize at the St. Louis Fair, and a second-place award in 1662.

Sarah rejoined her sisters in Philadelphia in the summer of 1878. Soon afterwards, Anna died, followed by Margaretta in 1882. With the passing of Sarah and Titian Ramsay Peale in 1885, the dynasty of the "painting Peales" ceased.

Anna Claypoole Peale and Sarah Miriam Peale, if not among the first rank, were major artists, and were as prodigious in output during their early careers as any of their peers. Both gained an independence beyond the conventional role of women. Anna was the accomplished miniaturist, and Sarah excelled, using oil and canvas, at portraiture and still life. Margaretta mastered the basics of the Peale style of realism. Anna and Sarah matured in their art, creating portraits conveying the distinctive personalities of their subjects. Their still lifes had vigor and freshness. Like those of other Peales, the works of the sisters had a sharp focus, enhanced by painting upon drawings of their subjects. Sarah Miriam Peale was the most important woman artist in America until the end of the 19th century.


Born, Wolfgang. "The Female Peales: Their Art and Its Tradition," in American Collector. August 1946, pp. 12–14.

Cassell, Mary Lucas. "Sarah Miriam Peale (1800–1885): Still-Life of Watermelon and Grapes." Unpublished M.A. thesis, Department of Art History, University of Virginia, 1993.

Elam, Charles H. The Peale Family: Three Generations of American Artists. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1967.

Gordon, Jean. "Early American Women Artists and the Social Context in Which They Worked," in American Quarterly. Vol. 30, 1978, pp. 54–69.

Hunter, Wilbur H., and John Mahey. Miss Sarah Miriam Peale, 1800–1885: Portraits and Still Life. Exhibition, February 5, 1967, through March 26, 1967. Baltimore, MD: The Peale Museum, 1967.

Sellers, Charles Coleman. Charles Willson Peale. Vol. 2 (Later Life). Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 1947.

——. Charles Willson Peale. NY: Scribner, 1969.

suggested reading:

Fine, Elsa H. Women & Art: A History of Women Painters and Sculptors from the Renaissance to the 20th Century. Montclair, NJ: Allanheld & Schram-Prior, 1978.

King, Joan. Sarah M. Peale: America's First Woman Artist. Boston, MA: Branden, 1987 (historical fiction).

Miller, Lillian B., ed. The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family. 3 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988–1991.


Exhibit collections of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Harry M. M. , Professor of History, University of Richmond, and author of Colonial America, 1607–1763 (Prentice Hall, 1991) and The American Revolution: Nationhood Achieved, 1763–1788 (St. Martin's Press, 1995)