Post-Revolutionary Peale

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C.W. Peale, The Arch of Triumph (1783-84)

Arch of Triump

American Philosophical Society

Every detail in the thrilling Arch of Triumph conceived by "the ingenious Captain Peale" contributed to the total effect, celebrating the unique identity of the new nation, its values rooted in Classical civilization, and its dedication to republican principles: The four Ionic columns "entwined with American flowers in their natural colors"; George Washington as Cincinnatus "returning, laurel-crowned, to his plow"; a library, "with emblems of art and science"; Indians "building churches in the wilderness"; due homages to France for her encouragement and support; on the balustrade stand heroic-sized statues representing Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude. The initials "S.P.Q.P." on the spandrels of the central arch invoke the Latin words for "Senate and People of Pennsylvania." The Arch was surmounted by a bank of clouds to which figures of Peace and her attendant dieties were to descend from nearby rooftops. This graphic reconstruction of the Arch, by the Philadelphia architect Lester Hoadley Sellers, was based on contemporary newspaper descriptions.

Charles Willson's Revolutionary career has been recounted in some detail to give a sense of just how committed he was to revolutionary ideals and the building of a new nation, and to show the violence and disorder he experienced at its inception. Sellers writes that upon being elected to the Assembly,

the painter had reached a new eminence along this dangerous road.  He was trying to maintain the part of the moderate revolutionary, as his friend Lafayette was to do with equal ill success in a later situation. He had seen the liberated masses flout every principle of freedom and he was suffering all the miseries of doubt and turbulence. But one who is "animated with the sacred love for his country," who sees in the cluster of states the emergence of reason and virtue throughout humanity, must go on. He saw a new era dawning, vast and irrefutable forces moving forward, and to these his heart was joined.1

But Peale was not a politician. Conciliatory by nature, frightened by discord, an artist used to praise who suffered criticism badly, Peale was not comfortable arguing policy or outmaneuvering opposition. Never a divisive partisan, the man who could agreeably paint Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton, was not suited for legislative halls. He was, however, eminently suited to be a proselytizer and showman. As painful as Peale's 1780 defeat for reelection to the State Assembly was, it freed his talents for other endeavors.

The first project was the opening in 1782 of the gallery of portraits adjoining the Peale home at Third and Lombard Streets—the first skylight gallery in America. In it were paintings of military and civilian leaders of the Revolution. The gallery was the first step on the road leading to the grand museum of the 1800s.

News of the signing of the treaty with Great Britain officially ending the War brought about a second opportunity. To celebrate the occasion, Peale constructed a triumphal arch over forty feet tall and more than fifty wide, across Market Street. Made of wood, paper, and canvas, the arch contained numerous symbols of ancient Rome, republicanism, and recent events. The extravagant construction was a "transparency," to be backlit from inside with hundreds of lamps, with fireworks exploding overhead. Disaster struck on the appointed night. With the audience already gathered, a firework was set off prematurely, igniting the whole structure, killing one and injuring others, including Peale, who took three weeks in bed to recover. The disaster was not an auspicious start for the longed-for peace, but it was a public success nonetheless. The structure was rebuilt and shown without incident three months later.2

A third public spectacle, set up next to the portrait gallery in 1785, was made of "moving pictures," as Peale called them. Based on techniques invented in England, the moving pictures comprised a number of scenes, one following another, constructed of transparencies, and using sound and visual effects. Eventually there were six in all: Night, A Street, A Grand Piece of Architecture (a Roman villa around which a storm broke), Pandaemonium (inspired by Milton's Paradise Lost), Vandering's Mill (a scenic spot on the Schuylkill River), and The Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis (of the famous John Paul Jones battle). It was another success, though the income probably didn't justify the work involved in building it.

1. Sellers, 180.

2. Charles Coleman Sellers, "Charles Willson Peale with Patron and Populace: A Supplement to Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale, with a Survey of His Work in Other Genres," in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s., vol. 59, pt. 3, (May 1969), 20, 89.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program