Charles Willson Peale

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Charles Willson Peale
Charles Wilson Peale - Self-Portrait with Angelica and Portrait of Rachel - Google Art Project.jpg
Charles Willson Peale, self-portrait, c. 1782–85 with portraits of his wife Rachel and his daughter Angelica
Born(1741-04-15)April 15, 1741
DiedFebruary 22, 1827(1827-02-22) (aged 85)
Resting placeSaint Peter's Episcopal Churchyard, Philadelphia
Known for Painting
Self-portrait of Peale (c. 1791) at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Charles Willson Peale - Charles Willson Peale Self-Portrait - Google Art Project.jpg
Self-portrait of Peale (c.1791) at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Charles Willson Peale (April 15, 1741 February 22, 1827) was an American painter, soldier, scientist, inventor, politician and naturalist. He is best remembered for his portrait paintings of leading figures of the American Revolution, and for establishing one of the first museums in the United States.

Painting Practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a surface

Painting is the practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a solid surface. The medium is commonly applied to the base with a brush, but other implements, such as knives, sponges, and airbrushes, can be used. The final work is also called a painting.

American Revolution Colonial revolt in which the Thirteen Colonies won independence from Great Britain

The American Revolution was a colonial revolt that took place between 1765 and 1783. The American Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies won independence from Great Britain, becoming the United States of America. They defeated the British in the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) in alliance with France and others.

Museum institution that holds artifacts and other objects of scientific, artistic, cultural, historical, or other importance

A museum is an institution that cares for (conserves) a collection of artifacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance. Many public museums make these items available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary. The largest museums are located in major cities throughout the world, while thousands of local museums exist in smaller cities, towns and rural areas. Museums have varying aims, ranging from serving researchers and specialists to serving the general public. The goal of serving researchers is increasingly shifting to serving the general public.


Early life

Peale was born in 1741 between modern-day Queenstown and Centreville, Queen Anne's County, Maryland, [1] the son of Charles Peale and his wife Margaret. He had a younger brother, James Peale (1749–1831). Charles became an apprentice to a saddle maker when he was fourteen years old. Upon reaching maturity, he opened his own saddle shop [2] and joined the Sons of Liberty. [3] However, he was unsuccessful in saddle making. He then tried fixing clocks and working with metals, but both of these endeavors failed as well. He then took up painting.

Queenstown, Maryland Town in Maryland, United States

Queenstown is a town in Queen Anne's County, Maryland, United States. The population was 664 at the 2010 census.

Centreville, Maryland Town in Maryland, United States

Centreville is an incorporated town in Queen Anne's County, Maryland, United States. Incorporated in 1794, it is the county seat of Queen Anne's County. The population was 4,285 at the 2010 census. The ZIP code is 21617 and the area code is 410. The local telephone exchange is 758. It hosts the Queen Anne's County Fair each summer and was home to three franchises during the existence of the Eastern Shore Baseball League—the Colts, Red Sox, and Orioles. The book Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings is set in Centreville.

Queen Annes County, Maryland County in the United States

Queen Anne's County is a county located in the U.S. state of Maryland. As of the 2010 census, the population was 47,798. Its county seat and most populous municipality is Centreville. The census-designated place of Stevensville is the county's most populous place. The county is named for Queen Anne of Great Britain who reigned when the county was established in 1706.

Career as a painter

Finding that he had a talent for painting, especially portraiture, Peale studied for a time under John Hesselius and John Singleton Copley. John Beale Bordley and friends eventually raised enough money for him to travel to England to take instruction from Benjamin West. Peale studied with West for three years beginning in 1767, afterward returning to America and settling in Annapolis, Maryland. There, he taught painting to his younger brother, James Peale, who in time also became a noted artist.

John Hesselius American artist

John Hesselius (1728–1778) was a portraitist who worked mostly in Virginia and Maryland. He was the son of the Swedish-born portraitist Gustavus Hesselius.

John Singleton Copley American-born painter

John Singleton Copley was an Anglo-American painter, active in both colonial America and England. He was probably born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Richard and Mary Singleton Copley, both Anglo-Irish. He is famous for his portrait paintings of wealthy and influential figures in colonial New England, depicting in particular middle-class subjects. His portraits were innovative in their tendency to depict artifacts relating to these individuals' lives.

John Beale Bordley American planter and judge

John Beale Bordley, was a Maryland planter and judge.

American Revolution

George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, 1781. Yale University Art Gallery George Washington at the Battle of Princeton by Charles Willson Peale.jpeg
George Washington at the Battle of Princeton , 1781. Yale University Art Gallery

Peale's enthusiasm for the nascent national government brought him to the capital, Philadelphia, in 1776, where he painted portraits of American notables and visitors from overseas. His estate, which is on the campus of La Salle University in Philadelphia, can still be visited. He also raised troops for the War of Independence and eventually gained the rank of captain in the Pennsylvania militia by 1776, having participated in several battles. While in the field, he continued to paint, doing miniature portraits of various officers in the Continental Army. He produced enlarged versions of these in later years. He served in the Pennsylvania state assembly in 1779–1780, after which he returned to painting full-time.

Philadelphia Largest city in Pennsylvania, United States

Philadelphia, sometimes known colloquially as Philly, is the largest city in the U.S. state and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the sixth-most populous U.S. city, with a 2017 census-estimated population of 1,580,863. Since 1854, the city has been coterminous with Philadelphia County, the most populous county in Pennsylvania and the urban core of the eighth-largest U.S. metropolitan statistical area, with over 6 million residents as of 2017. Philadelphia is also the economic and cultural anchor of the greater Delaware Valley, located along the lower Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, within the Northeast megalopolis. The Delaware Valley's population of 7.2 million ranks it as the eighth-largest combined statistical area in the United States.

La Salle University private university in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States

La Salle University is a private, Roman Catholic university in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Named for St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, the university was founded in 1863 by the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. The university offers traditional, online, and hybrid courses and programs. The university is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church through the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

American Revolutionary War War between Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies, which won independence as the United States of America

The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), also known as the American War of Independence, was an 18th-century war between Great Britain and its Thirteen Colonies which declared independence as the United States of America.

Peale was quite prolific as an artist. While he did portraits of scores of historic figures (such as James Varnum, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton), he is probably best known for his portraits of George Washington. The first time Washington sat for a portrait was with Peale in 1772, and they had six other sittings; using these seven as models, Peale produced altogether close to 60 portraits of Washington. In January 2005, a full-length portrait of Washington at Princeton from 1779 sold for $21.3 million, setting a record for the highest price paid for an American portrait.

James Mitchell Varnum American judge

James Mitchell Varnum was an American legislator, lawyer, general in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and a pioneer to the Ohio Country. "The career of Gen. Varnum was active, but brief. He graduated at twenty; was admitted to the bar at twenty-two; entered the army at twenty-seven; resigned his commission at thirty-one; was member of Congress the same year; resumed practice at thirty-three, and continued four years, was elected to Congress again at thirty-seven; emigrated to the west at thirty-nine, and died at the early age of forty."

Benjamin Franklin American polymath and a Founding Father of the United States

Benjamin Franklin was an American polymath and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other inventions. He founded many civic organizations, including the Library Company, Philadelphia's first fire department and the University of Pennsylvania.

John Hancock American Patriot and statesman during the American Revolution (1737–1793)

John Hancock was an American merchant, statesman, and prominent Patriot of the American Revolution. He served as president of the Second Continental Congress and was the first and third Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He is remembered for his large and stylish signature on the United States Declaration of Independence, so much so that the term "John Hancock" has become a synonym in the United States for one's signature.

One of his most celebrated paintings is The Staircase Group (1795), a double portrait of his sons Raphaelle and Titian, painted in the trompe l'oeil style. [4] It is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Philadelphia Museum of Art Art museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is an art museum originally chartered in 1876 for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The main museum building was completed in 1928 on Fairmount, a hill located at the northwest end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at Eakins Oval. The museum administers collections containing over 240,000 objects including major holdings of European, American and Asian origin. The various classes of artwork include sculpture, paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, armor, and decorative arts.

The Artist in His Museum (self-portrait, 1822) is displayed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. C W Peale - The Artist in His Museum.jpg
The Artist in His Museum (self-portrait, 1822) is displayed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

Peale Museum

Peale had a great interest in natural history, and organized the first U.S. scientific expedition in 1801. These two major interests combined in his founding of what became the Philadelphia Museum, later known as Peale's American Museum. It housed a diverse collection of botanical, biological, and archaeological specimens.

The museum contained a large variety of birds which Peale himself acquired, and in many instances mounted, having taught himself taxidermy. In 1792, Peale initiated a correspondence with Thomas Hall, of the Finsbury Museum, City Road, Finsbury, London proposing to purchase British stuffed items for his museum. Eventually, an exchange system was established between the two, whereby Peale sent American birds to Hall in exchange for an equal number of British birds. This arrangement continued until the end of the century. The Peale Museum was the first to display a mastodon skeleton (which in Peale's time were referred to as mammoth bones; these common names were amended by Georges Cuvier in 1800, and his proposed usage is that employed today) that Peale found in New York State. Peale worked with his son to mount the skeleton for display.

The Staircase Group (1795), a trompe l'oeil by Peale depicting his sons Raphaelle and Titian Peale I Charles Willson Peale 001.jpg
The Staircase Group (1795), a trompe l'oeil by Peale depicting his sons Raphaelle and Titian Peale I

The display of the "mammoth" bones entered Peale into a long-standing debate between Thomas Jefferson and Comte de Buffon. Buffon argued that Europe was superior to the Americas biologically, which was illustrated through the size of animals found there. Jefferson referenced the existence of these "mammoths" (which he believed still roamed northern regions of the continent) as evidence for a greater biodiversity in America. Peale's display of these bones drew attention from Europe, as did his method of re-assembling large skeletal specimens in three dimensions.

The museum was among the first to adopt Linnaean taxonomy. This system drew a stark contrast between Peale's museum and his competitors who presented their artifacts as mysterious oddities of the natural world.

The museum underwent several moves during its existence. At various times it was located in several prominent buildings including Independence Hall and the original home of the American Philosophical Society.

The museum would eventually fail, in large part because Peale was unsuccessful at obtaining government funding. After his death, the museum was sold to, and split up by, showmen P. T. Barnum and Moses Kimball. [5]

Marriage and family

Rachel, his first wife, weeping over their daughter Margeret, who died of smallpox (Charles Willson Peale, 1772-1776) RachelWeeping.jpg
Rachel, his first wife, weeping over their daughter Margeret, who died of smallpox (Charles Willson Peale, 1772–1776)

In 1762, Peale married Rachel Brewer (1744–1790), who bore him ten children, most named for Peale's favorite artists, male and female. The sons included Raphaelle Peale (1774–1825), Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860), who was another famous portrait painter and museum owner/operator in Baltimore, and scientific inventor and businessman, Titian Peale I (1780–1798), and Rubens Peale (1784–1865). Among the daughters: Angelica Kauffman Peale (named for Angelica Kauffman, Peale's favorite female painter) married Alexander Robinson, her daughter Priscilla Peale wed Dr. Henry Boteler, [6] and Sophonisba Angusciola Peale (named for Sofonisba Anguissola) married Coleman Sellers.

After Rachel's death in 1790, Peale married Elizabeth de Peyster (d. 1804) the next year. With his second wife, he had six additional children. One son, Franklin Peale, born on October 15, 1795, became the Chief Coiner at the Philadelphia Mint. Their youngest son, Titian Ramsay Peale (1799–1885), became an important naturalist and pioneer in photography. Their daughter, Elizabeth De Peyster Peale (1802–57), married William Augustus Patterson (1792–1833) in 1820.

Hannah More, a Quaker from Philadelphia, married Peale in 1804, becoming his third wife. She helped raise the younger children from his previous two marriages.

Peale's slave, Moses Williams, was also trained in the arts while growing up in the Peale household and later became a professional silhouette artist. [7]

His 2nd wife, Elizabeth DePeyster Peale (1765-1804), (Charles Willson Peale, 1798) Elizabeth DePeyster Peale (1765 - 1804), by Charles Willson Peale (1741 - 1827).jpg
His 2nd wife, Elizabeth DePeyster Peale (1765–1804), (Charles Willson Peale, 1798)

In 1810, Peale purchased a farm in Germantown where he intended to retire. He named this estate 'Belfield', and cultivated extensive gardens there. After Hannah's death in 1821, Peale lived with his son Rubens and sold Belfield in 1826. Peale died on February 22, 1827, and was buried at the Saint Peter's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. [8]


A Renaissance man, Peale had expertise not only in painting but also in many diverse fields, including carpentry, dentistry, optometry, shoemaking, and taxidermy. In 1802, John Isaac Hawkins patented the second official physiognotrace, a mechanical drawing device, and partnered with Peale to market it to prospective buyers. Peale sent a watercolor sketch of the physiognotrace, along with a detailed explanation, to Thomas Jefferson. The drawing is now held with the Jefferson Papers in the Library of Congress. [9]

Around 1804, Peale obtained the American patent rights to the polygraph from its inventor John Isaac Hawkins, about the same time as the purchase of one by Thomas Jefferson. Peale and Jefferson collaborated on refinements to this device, which enabled a copy of a handwritten letter to be produced simultaneously with the original.

Peale wrote several books, among which were An Essay on Building Wooden Bridges (1797) and An Epistle to a Friend on the Means of Preserving Health (1803). Peale named all of his sons for artists or scientists, and taught them to paint. Three of them, Rembrandt, Raphaelle, and Titian, became noted artists in their own right.

He was the brother-in-law of Nathaniel Ramsey, a delegate to the Congress of the Confederation.

Legacy and honors

Notable works

See also

Related Research Articles

Visual art of the United States

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Rembrandt Peale American painter

Rembrandt Peale was an American artist and museum keeper. A prolific portrait painter, he was especially acclaimed for his likenesses of presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Peale's style was influenced by French Neoclassicism after a stay in Paris in his early thirties.

Titian Peale American painter

Titian Ramsay Peale was an American artist, naturalist, and explorer. He was a noted scientific illustrator whose paintings and drawings of wildlife were known for their beauty and accuracy. He participated as a naturalist in several scientific surveys, in particular he accompanied Stephen Harriman Long in 1819 to explore the Rocky Mountains and later served on the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842).

Charles Peale Polk American painter

Charles Peale Polk was an American portrait painter and the nephew of artist Charles Willson Peale.

Raphaelle Peale painter from the United States

Raphaelle Peale is considered the first professional American painter of still-life.

Peale Museum museum in Baltimore, Maryland, US

The Peale Museum, officially the Municipal Museum of the City of Baltimore, was a museum of paintings and natural history, located in Baltimore, Maryland, United States. It occupied the first building in the Western Hemisphere to be designed and built specifically as a museum. The museum was created by Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827) and his son Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860). It functioned separately as Baltimore City's historical museum since the original structure was being rebuilt, restored, and renovated in 1930–1931, and then merged with other historic sites, houses and museums in the early 1980s under the expansive efforts of a new executive director, with the name of the Baltimore City Life Museums and a broader mission in conjunction with the other historical locations/sites/structures in Baltimore.

James Peale American painter

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Peale may refer to:

<i>The Artist in His Museum</i> painting by Charles Willson Peale

The Artist in His Museum is an 1822 self-portrait by the American painter Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827). It depicts the 81-year-old artist posed in Peale's Museum, then occupying the second floor of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The nearly life-size painting is in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

<i>Washington at Princeton</i> painting by Charles Willson Peale

Washington at Princeton is a painting by Charles Willson Peale. The original was commissioned by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania for its council chamber in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Peale made eight copies of the painting. The original, now owned by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, was completed in early 1779, when Washington sat for Peale in Philadelphia. In January 2005, the painting sold for $21.3 million - setting a record for the highest price paid for an American portrait. Six of the paintings are in United States institutions including the United States Senate; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Yale University Art Gallery; National Portrait Gallery; Colonial Williamsburg; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; and Princeton University Art Museum.

Anna Claypoole Peale American painter

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Belfield (Philadelphia)

Belfield, also known as the Charles Willson Peale House, was the home of Charles Willson Peale from 1810 to 1826, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965. The Belfield Estate was a 104-acre (42 ha) area of land in the Logan section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, much of which is now a part of La Salle University’s campus.

Rubens Peale American museum administrator and painter

Rubens Peale was an American museum administrator and artist. Born in Philadelphia, he was the son of artist-naturalist Charles Willson Peale. Due to his weak eyesight, he did not practice painting seriously until the last decade of his life, when he painted still life.


A physiognotrace or physionotrace is an instrument designed to trace a person's physiognomy, most specifically the profile in the form of a silhouette: it originated in France where it is known as the physionotrace. The instrument is a descendant of the pantograph, a drawing device that magnifies figures.

Sarah Miriam Peale painter from the United States

Sarah Miriam Peale was an American portrait painter, considered the first American woman to succeed as a professional artist. One of a family of artists of whom her uncle Charles Willson Peale was the most illustrious, Sarah Peale painted portraits mainly of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. notables, politicians, and military figures. Lafayette sat for her four times.

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James Claypoole, Sr. was an American portrait painter, house painter and glazier. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Joseph Claypoole (1677-1740/41) and his second wife Edith Ward Claypoole. He died in Philadelphia.

Anson Dickinson American painter

Anson Dickinson was an American painter of miniature portraits who achieved fame during his lifetime, producing a very large number of works, but who is now largely forgotten.

Moses Williams (1777–c.1825) was an African-American visual artist who was particularly well known as a maker of silhouettes. He was a former slave of the artist Charles Willson Peale.

Hetty Benbridge was an American painter of miniature portraits.


  1. "Maryland Historical Markers: Birthplace of Charles Willson Peale". Maryland Historical Trust. Maryland Historical Society. Archived from the original on 12 April 2018. Retrieved 5 October 2018.
  2. Barratt, Carrie Rebora, and Lori Zabar (2010). American Portrait Miniatures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art . New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 34. ISBN   1588393577.
  3. Jennifer Courtney & Courtney Sanford: "Marvelous To Behold" Classical Conversations (2018)
  4. Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l'Oeil Painting, National Gallery of Art
  5. Alexander, Edward P. (1995). Museum Masters: Their Museums and Their Influence. Rowman Altamira. pp. 43–72.
  6. From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African ... p. 149.
  7. DuBois Shaw, Gwendolyn (March 2005). "Moses Williams, Cutter of Profiles: Silhouettes and African American Identity in the Early Republic" (PDF). Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 149 (1). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-05-01. Retrieved 8 March 2015.
  8. Charles Willson Peale at Find a Grave
  9. Penley Knipe (2002). "Paper Profiles: American Portrait Silhouettes". Journal of the American Institute for Conservation. 41 (3): 203–223. doi:10.1179/019713602806082575.