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Summary Article: Peale, Charles Willson
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(pēl), 1741–1827, American portrait painter, naturalist, and inventor, b. Queen Annes County, Md.

Early Life

Apprenticed to a saddler in Annapolis, he became at 20 his own master and taught himself various other trades—watchmaking, silversmithing, upholstery, and sign painting. Forced into bankruptcy, he fled to Boston, where he worked for a short time in Copley's studio. After working with Copley, Peale returned to Annapolis to paint portraits of its wealthy citizens, a group of whom sent (1766) him to study with Benjamin West in London. Upon his return to America he established himself in Philadelphia in 1776.


The earliest known portrait of Washington (1772; Washington and Lee Univ.) was painted by Peale. Of the many he painted of Washington, seven were from life. Peale served as a captain of volunteers in the Revolution, painting, when he could, portraits of military leaders. His group Washington, Lafayette, and Tench Tilghman hangs in the chamber of the house of delegates, Annapolis. Other portraits of Washington are in the Brooklyn Museum; the Metropolitan Museum; Princeton; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. After Copley's departure for England, Peale was the most popular portrait painter in the country. During his lifetime he painted a galaxy of historical figures, including Washington, Martha Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, John Paul Jones, John Hancock, and John Adams.

Later Life and Work

In 1779 Peale was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature and was politically active for several years. In 1784 he established what was known as “Peale's Museum,” which was moved to Independence Hall in 1802. Besides a series of portraits of eminent Americans by Peale and his son Rembrandt, it contained a number of Native American relics, waxworks dummies, and specimens of natural history. He invented his own system of taxidermy and was a century ahead of his time in his concept of placing each animal in a simulated natural environment.

In 1801 he formed the first scientific expedition in American history. From a New York state farm he exhumed the skeleton of a mastodon, assembling and restoring the remains for his museum. Two major paintings of his later years underscore his scientific interests, Exhuming the Mastodon (1806–8; Peale Museum, Baltimore) and The Artist in His Studio (1822; Penna. Acad. of the Fine Arts). He was also instrumental in founding (1805) the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and taught there for a number of years. Evidence of his versatility are his numerous inventions: a velocipede, new types of eyeglasses, false teeth, and the polygraph. On the polygraph he collaborated with Thomas Jefferson.

The Peale Family

Charles Willson Peale's brother James Peale, 1749–1831, b. Chestertown, Md., painted portraits, particularly miniatures. There is a portrait of Washington by him in the New-York Historical Society. Another hangs in Independence Hall. Of Charles Willson Peale's 17 children, four aptly named sons became painters—Titian Ramsay Peale, 1799–1885, museum director, naturalist on U.S. scientific expeditions, and painter noted for his depictions of birds, mammals, and butterflies, b. Philadelphia; Rubens Peale, 1784–1865, museum director who became a still-life and landscape painter later in life, b. Bucks co., Pa.; Raphaelle Peale, 1774–1825, still-life and portrait painter, b. Annapolis, Md., known chiefly for After the Bath (Nelson Gall.-Atkins Mus., Kansas City, Mo.); and Rembrandt Peale, 1778–1860, portrait and historical painter, b. Bucks County, Pa.

Rembrandt Peale practiced for several years in Charleston, S.C., became a pupil of Benjamin West in London, and visited Paris, where he painted many eminent Frenchmen. In 1810 he settled in Philadelphia, devoting himself chiefly to portraiture. He was one of the original members of the National Academy of Design and succeeded (1825) John Trumbull as president of the American Academy of Fine Arts. A clever lithographer, he also lectured on natural history and wrote several books. Examples of his portraits of Washington and other famous personages may be seen at the New-York Historical Society; Independence Hall, Philadelphia; the Metropolitan Museum; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His large allegory The Court of Death is in the Detroit Institute of Art.

  • See biography of Charles Willson Peale by C. C. Sellers (1969).
  • See also studies by C. C. Sellers (2 vol., 1947) and (1952);.
  • Elam, C. H. , ed., The Peale Family (1967).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

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