Painter, soldier, inventor, naturalist, paleontologist, patriarch, museum impresario and businessman — Charles Willson Peale exemplifies the idealism of the American Revolution, the Enlightenment, and one man’s attempt to help found a virtuous republic. Like his friend Thomas Jefferson, he saw an historic opportunity for humanity to start anew.
As a portraitist, one way to think of Peale is as the
photographer of the Revolution. He was not the greatest of the early American artists — that was John Singleton Copley. Nor was he the greatest iconographer of the Revolution in the popular mind — that would be both John Trumbull, for his historical paintings, and Gilbert Stuart, for his trenchant paintings of George Washington, John Adams, and other Founders.
Though several of his paintings of Washington are iconic — in fact he painted the earliest image we have of him (Colonel Washington, 1772) — Peale’s great and continuing accomplishment is his portraits of
worthy personages. Comprehending almost 250 paintings, these are bust-type portraits, all the same size, of individuals who either contributed to the Revolutionary War or to the early American republic. In many cases Peale painted the only image we have of these men (alas, they were all men).
Peale was accomplished in creating mood and affect — see Rachel Weeping, for example. (At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it is on display, a security guard spontaneously spoke to me about how it moved her so.) Yet in his
Gallery of Famous Men, scientist, soldier, politician, explorer, inventor, educator, and famous Founder all rubbed shoulders. None was given more prominence or painterly effects than the others.
Today, many of these portraits can be seen at the Second Bank building in Philadelphia.
Peale was the patriarch of a large family. He married three times and had 17 children; 11 survived into adulthood. Three of them — Raphaelle, Rembrandt, and Rubens — went on to become well-known painters in their own right. Peale’s younger brother, James, was also an artist, and instead of sons who were painters, he had four remarkable daughters — Anna Claypoole, Maria, Margaretta Angelica, and Sara Miriam. Another renowned portrait painter, Charles Peale Polk, was Peale’s nephew, who, orphaned at age ten, was raised in Peale’s household and one of his first pupils.
During the Revolutionary War Peale was active as both soldier and politician. He joined the Pennsylvania militia, rising to the rank of captain, and participated in the Battles of Trenton (26-Dec-1776) and Princeton (3-Jan-1777). He also served on a committee to confiscate the land of Loyalists and served a term (1779 - 80) in the Pennsylvania Assembly. His involvement in the war later took a toll on his ability to acquire the wealthy patrons and commissions necessary to support his art. So in the 1780s he decided to build a business from another avocation — natural history.
Peale collected fossils and specimens of birds and other animals which he taxidermied. He realized that by displaying these along with his portraits of personages he could open a museum that combined the two. Unlike private collections or the handful of national museums elsewhere in the world, this one would not be for the privileged few but for the many. Open to the public, democratically accessible — with an admission fee of 25 cents — it would serve to educate, instill republican values, and entertain.
Peale’s Museum opened in 1786 out of his home. The first natural history museum in the United States, it was also the only museum in the world to use the recent Linnean system for classification. As the museum developed and became known, specimens and oddities from all over the world were sent to him. In need of more space, the collection moved to the American Philosophical Society and then, in 1802, to the top floor of the Pennsylvania State House, Independence Hall.
Retiring from painting in 1794, Peale’s principal source of income and support for his large family derived from the museum, which grossed nearly $12,000 in 1816.
Peale’s most significant contribution to natural history and paleontology was the exhumation and display of the first complete skeleton of a mastodon — the woolly mammoth. Not only was it the most celebrated exhibit in his museum (with a separate admission price) it also caused a sensation in natural philosophy on both sides of the Atlantic. It was hotly debated. Did the skeleton represent an animal still thriving in some remote corner of the continent? Or, if indeed it was extinct, didn’t that call into question the very notion of a fixed unchanging universe?
Inadvertently, Peale’s participation in the American Revolution seeded another, very different, revolution.