Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) is best known as a painter whose work includes more than one iconic image of early American history, from Colonel George Washington (1772) to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (1791) to General Andrew Jackson (1819). He is also remembered as a museum keeper whose establishment was the most important one in the early republic. Moreover, like so many prominent men of the Revolutionary generation, Peale's energy and broad interests led him into many fields. He was also a soldier, a politician, an inventor, a farmer, and a naturalist.
Charles Willson Peale
The Artist in His Museum, 1822
Oil on canvas
Accession No. 1878.1.2
Original size, 103-3/4 x 79-7/8 inches [263.5 x 202.9 cm].
Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.
Gift of Mrs. Sarah Harrison (The Joseph Harrison, Jr. Collection), No. 1878.1.2
While he lived during a particular American moment, he is recognizably American to this day: a promoter, a tinkerer, a businessman, devoted to his family, ambitious, a lover of compromise, idealistic, hardworking, patriotic, a believer in democracy and meritocracy, cheerful, likable, temperate, charitable. He was also naïve, unsystematic, sentimental, vain, uxorious, and not particularly good with finances. Yet his life is noteworthy for the way all its parts fit together. He was resolutely practical, determined always to learn about the world and how things are done. He also firmly believed in bettering the human condition and in doing so fulfilling the destiny of the new United States, a republic rich in promise for all its citizens. With his activities, talents, and energy—and the fact he lived in Philadelphia—Charles Willson Peale seemed almost destined to play an important role in the Lewis and Clark story.
His father, Charles Peale, had disgraced himself in England when, as a young government clerk, he embezzled state funds. A trial resulted in a death sentence, but transportation to the colonies was arranged. Charles pére, moderately educated and literate, with the demeanor of a proper English gentleman, worked hard and became a successful school teacher. He socialized with the local planters whose children he taught, and actively sought to better his station, seeking political office as a loyal servant of the proprietors. Hope and effort never brought the comfortable offices he sought, however. One great expectation, never realized, was that through an old family connection he thought he was to inherit a landed estate in England.1
Charles pére married Margaret Triggs, who gave birth to Charles Willson on April 14, 1741, in Queen Anne's County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, only seven months after the wedding.2 Despite this inauspicious beginning to the marriage (which also brought no social advantages)3, Margaret proved a devoted wife and mother. She needed all her strength of character after her husband died in 1750, leaving her only a very modest estate and five young children to raise. John Beale Bordley, a former student of his father's, brought the family to Annapolis, where Margaret Peale earned a living as a seamstress. Charles Willson helped by drawing patterns and also amused the family by copying pictures for them.
As the oldest child, Charles Willson very early faced the problem of earning a living for himself and helping support his mother and siblings. Probably through Bordley, Peale at thirteen obtained an apprenticeship in a saddlery. The bonds of apprenticeship would eventually prove irksome, but the labor would not. Throughout his life Peale was remarkable for his energy and ability to learn new skills. As Charles Coleman Sellers notes of Peale's character at the saddlery:
the constant labor set a pattern happily maintained through all his life. He was acutely sensitive to praise or blame. He loved to capture admiration by surprise as he met a need or solved a difficulty. This also was to remain, this delight in doing what others were unable to do. By the same token, a poignant fear of failure encouraged modesty.4
By 1761 Peale was able to set himself up as an independent saddler. He had also taught himself to repair watches, another handy skill, and would learn harness making, upholstering, and silversmithing. He could thus afford, early in 1762, to marry Rachel Brewer. Peale would marry three times, and, while each spouse certainly had an independent personalitiy, all were supportive, cheerful wives and dedicated family women.
In 1762 he also took his first serious steps toward becoming a painter. The spur came from seeing some poorly-done paintings at a house in Virginia. Peale thought he could do better. Practice on subjects at home found praise. In the tradesman-like manner he approached all activities, Peale then sought out advice from practitioners, purchased the necessary tools of the trade, and began to teach himself. Pursuing his new interest, Peale thus took what might have been his first trip to Philadelphia, where he visited two local painters, purchased paints, and found a "how-to" book called The Handmaid to the Arts.
An honest and trusting man, Charles Willson always made money through his imagination, skill and hard work, but he lacked real financial sense. There were moments of financial crisis throughout his career, none worse than the one that occurred in 1764-65. One business associate absconded with some ready cash, while another called in debts. Politics also played a role. Peale was an example par excellence of American tradesmen, sharing their meritocratic, democratic, middle class values as opposed to the patronage-centered, oligarchic, aristocratic values of most of the planters and governing class. The immediate cause of the political crisis was the controversy over taxing the colonies, and during it Peale proved an American patriot in embryo. With typical enthusiasm Peale supported Samuel Chase, candidate for the lower provincial assembly of the so-called "Country Party," opposing Dr. George Steuart, standing for the "Court Party." Chase won, and Peale's debts were called in. Peale fled to Boston, vowing to settle his debts eventually, though that would take him eleven years. There he visited John Singleton Copley5, who kindly showed the aspiring painter his studio and gave him a painting to copy for practice.
Peale's talent was emerging. Creditors being temporarily mollified, Charles returned to Annapolis, Maryland. Portrait painting pointed to better prospects than saddle-making. John Beale Bordley, after studying a portrait Peale had sent to Bordley's sister, came from the viewing room and announced to his sister's family, "Something must, and shall be done for Charles,"6 and proceeded to raise money to send him to England to study. Leaving Rachel and their young son, with high hopes for his new profession and eager to see that the inheritance promised his father (and now him as well) was secure, Peale sailed for England in December of 1766.
1. Charles Willson Peale was christened Charles Wilson Peale, after the family to whose lands he was the purported heir. His father had the understanding from the Wilson family that he would inherit those lands once a Wilson daughter died, and his son inherited both the understanding and the expectation, the latter heightened by a letter he received in 1761 urging him to go to England to secure his inheritance. The letter came from one Captain James Digby, presumed to be a member of the Digby family that had connections by marriage with the Wilsons and the Peales. The letter must have been a forgery, for as Charles Wilson Peale ultimately discovered, no Captain Digby existed. Moreover, the estate, which was not entailed—that is, a succession of inheritors was not legally defined —was given to another man by the daughter of Charles Wilson. When finally disabused of the expectation that he would inherit the Wilsons' land, Charles Wilson Peale became Charles Willson Peale, a step that distanced him from the Wilsons, and put the painful episode in his past.
2. Unless otherwise noted, biographical information comes from Charles Coleman Sellers, Charles Willson Peale (New York: Scribner's, 1969), and from Edgar Richardson, Brooke Hindle, and Lillian Miller, Charles Willson Peale and His World (New York, Abrams, 1982).
3. The Triggs family had no connections with the great provincial families, and Margaret had no claims on an estate as did Charles Peale. In Sellers' words, "Marriage does not seem to have been considered until it became apparent that Margaret might present another claimant in succession" to the Wilson estate in England.
4. Sellers, 19.
5. John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) was the premier portrait painter in North America by the time Peale met him. Ambitious to try historical painting, and realizing that academic training would help him develop his talent, Copley went to Europe in 1774, eventually settling in London. With entrées to the artistic world provided by Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West, Copley successfully launched a career in London, but over the years his reputation flagged and his finances deteriorated, abetted by a falling-out with West, and his own erratic behavior.
6. Sellers, 49.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program