Charles Willson Peale

Self-Portrait, 1795


15 April 1741 in Chester, Maryland
22 February 1827 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Buried at St. Peter’s Church, Philadelphia.

  • During his long career Charles Willson Peale paints about 1,100 portraits.
  • Peale never even saw a painting, much less tried his hand at painting, before 1762, when he was 21. Within 5 years he was studying under Benjamin West in London and exhibiting with the Society of British Artists beside artists like Thomas Gainsborough.
  • Between 1772 and 1795 George Washington sits for Peale a total of seven times — more than any other painter. These seven paintings from life are replicated, with variations, many times, by Peale and other painters in his family.
  • Peale is a polymath. He develops expertise not just in painting, but also in such fields as carpentry, dentistry, optometry, shoemaking, taxidermy, and business.
  • When John Isaac Hawkins patents the second physiognotrace (1802) — a mechanical drawing device — he partners with Peale to market it to prospective buyers.
  • Peale makes improvements to another Hawkins’ device, the polygraph, a machine for making duplicates of letters. Thomas Jefferson uses a series of these from 1806 until his death (1826). As Peale makes improvements on the original design, Jefferson gets a new one.
  • Peale opens a portrait gallery of Revolutionary heroes (1782) and founds Peale’s Museum (opening to the public on 18-Jul-1786), an institution intended for the study of natural law, and the display of natural history and technological objects — which he runs from his home (on 3rd and Lombard Sts.) in Philadelphia.
  • Running out of space for his collections, Peale rents space from the American Philosophical Society and moves the museum to Philosophical Hall (1794). Later, needing even more space, the museum is moved to the top floors of the old State House, now known as Independence Hall (1802).
  • The most famous exhibit in Peale’s Museum is the mastodon, since its skeleton is the most complete then known — and zoologists all over Europe want to learn about it.
  • Peale’s son, Rembrandt, opens a second museum in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1812.
  • Today, the largest collection of Peale paintings can be seen at the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia.

Charles Willson Peale, American painter — celebrated especially for his portraits of George Washington and his gallery of important figures from the American Revolution, was born in Queen Anne County, Maryland in 1741. During his infancy the family moved to Chestertown, Kent County, Maryland; after the death of his father (a country schoolmaster who had fled England because of embezzlement) in 1750 they settled in Annapolis. There, at the age of 13, he was apprenticed to a saddler.

About 1764 he began serious study of art. He received some assistance from Gustavus Hesselius, a Swedish portrait painter then living near Annapolis, and from John Singleton Copley in Boston. From 1767 - 70 he studied under Benjamin West in London.

Returning to America he opened a studio in Philadelphia in 1770 and met with immediate success. In 1772, at Mount Vernon, Peale painted a three-quarters-length study of Washington (the earliest known portrait of him), in the uniform of a colonel of the Virginia Regiment from the French and Indian War.

He painted various other portraits of Washington; probably the best known is a full-length, George Washington at Princeton (1779), of which Peale made many copies. This portrait had been ordered by the Continental Congress, which, however, made no appropriation for it, and eventually it was bought for a private collection in Philadelphia, and is now at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (which Peale co-founded in 1805).

Peale’s portraits of Washington may not be as iconic as those of Gilbert Stuart, but he was a skilled draftsman and colorist, and the range of his subjects gives to all of his work an unmatched historical value.

Peale moved to Philadelphia in 1777. He served as a member of the committee of public safety; aided in raising a militia company by painting battle flags, creating effigies of traitors for political parades, and creating designs for publication; experimented with manufacturing (sorely needed) gunpowder; became a lieutenant and afterwards a captain in the Pennsylvania militia; and took part in the battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Germantown. In 1779 - 80 he was a member of the Pennsylvania assembly, where he voted for the abolition of slavery — he freed his own slaves whom he had brought from Maryland.

Peale can be considered the photographer of the Revolution, because of his many bust-type paintings of the famous men of his time. While in the militia he painted miniatures of various officers in the Continental Army, and then later produced enlarged versions. His biographical portraiture, many of which can be seen at the Second Bank of the United States, was his founding project to create a pantheon that would perpetuate American republicanism and values.

In 1801 he undertook, largely at his own expense, the excavation of the skeletons of two mammoths in Orange and Ulster counties, New York. The reconstructed skeleton from the first excavation was later exhibited in his museum and memorialized in his painting The Exhumation of the Mastodon.

The establishment in 1802 of Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia, combined the artist’s interests in natural history and painting. The first museum in the United States — and very much a business — it provided for the first time to Peale and his family a steady stream of income (with annual receipts of $8,000 by the time of his death). At age 83 Peale painted a full-length portrait of himself, The Artist in His Museum, which shows him pulling back the curtain to his museum as if it were a theater.

He died at his country home, near Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1826.

Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.

America had a common language, unlike the European nations, none of which was linguistically homogeneous. in 1789 the majority of Frenchmen did not speak French but were divided by a variety of provincial patois. Englishmen from Yorkshire were incomprehensible to those from Cornwall and vice versa. By contrast, Americans could understand one another from Maine to Georgia. It was very obvious why this should be so, said John Witherspoon, president of Princeton. Since Americans were much more unsettled, and move frequently from place to place, they are not as liable to local peculiarities, either in accent or phraseology.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)