The Patriot Painters: Peale, Stuart, Trumbull and Early American Art, Part 1: Charles Willson Peale, 1741-1827

(The Text of a lecture given by Dr. William P. Marchione in the year 2000 at the Medford Public Library and Brighton-Allston Historical Society in Massachusetts. It will appear in three parts over the next several days.)


The three artists of the Revolutionary Era and Early National Period’s that I call The Patriot Painters— Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, and John Trumbull, created works that became American icons.

1. Stuart's George Washing (Athenaeum portrait, 1796)

Gilbert Stuart’s “Athenaeum Portrait of George Washington,” (1796), which appears on the one dollar bill

The engraving of Washington that appears on the one dollar bill is based on Gilbert Stuart’s Athenaeum Portrait of the Father of Our Country, while the engraving of Alexander Hamilton that appears on the ten dollar bill is taken from John Trumbull’s portrait of our First U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

2. Trumbull's Alexander Hamilton, 1792

John Trumbull’s “Alexander Hamilton,” (1792), which appears on the $10 bill

Charles Willson Peale’s portraits of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are likewise two of the most commonly reproduced images of those men, both of whom, it should be emphasized, the painter knew and greatly admired. These three painters, Paine, Stuart, and Trumbull, became in effect, the chief iconographers of early American history. Yet they were strikingly different in background and personality.  We begin, in part 1 of this series, with the eldest of the three, the redoubtable Charles Willson Peale.

3. Peale's Benjamin Franklin, 1789

By contrast, Charles Willson Peale’s 1789 portrait of Benjamin Franklin does not appear on American currency. The painting of Franklin on the $100 was the work of a French painter, Joseph Duplessis, completed while Franklin was representing the United States in Paris during the Revolution.

4. Robert Feke's self portrait, c. 1745

Robert Feke’s self portrait (c. 1745). Feke was a gifted and entirely self-taught painter of the late Colonial era

Now, before beginning, it should be emphasized that the opportunities for obtaining training in the arts in America were extremely limited in the late colonial period when these three men entered the scene. There were no art schools here before the Revolution. American painting, in fact, was highly pragmatic, consisting almost entirely of portraiture.

5. Copley, The Royall Sisters, 1758

Copley’s “The Royall Sisters.” In the colonial era, the most celebrated American painter was Boston’s John Singleton Copley, who left America for Britain in 1774, never to return to America. (see separate article entitled “John Singleton Copley’s Dilemma”). 

It was primarily rich families that availed themselves of the services of painters.

6. Smibert Thomas Hancock, 1730

John Smibert’s “Thomas Hancock,” Boston’s wealthiest merchant. A Scotsman, Smibert received his training in England, where he achieved only modest success. In the early 1740s he removed to Boston, where his European training and experience enabled him to dominate portraiture for a decade.

7. Peale self portrait, 1791

A Charles Willson Peale, self portrait, completed in 1791.

The only way to get an education in painting in America in the early years was by studying under an established artist. Much as a young man studying to be a blacksmith or a carpenter would sign an apprenticeship arrangement with a master craftsman, a would-be painter would enter the studio of an established limner or painter to be trained in that craft.


Part 1: Charles Willson Peale

The eldest of the three so-called Patriot Painters, Charles Willson Peale, was born in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, in 1741, some fourteen years before Stuart and fifteen years before Trumbull.

Peale had a troubled childhood. His father who came from a respectable middle class English family, was  a miscreant. Charles Peale, Sr. had borrowed heavily in his youth to support a lifestyle that greatly exceeded his means. His growing indebtedness forced him to leave Cambridge University and to seek employment with the British Post Office, where he was eventually arrested for stealing from his employer, found guilt, and sentenced to hang. Fortunately powerful friends arranged to have the errant young man instead transported to America, to the colony of Maryland.

8. British ship at sea c. 1740

A ship on its way to America in the early 1700s.

But Charles Peale, Sr. learned little from this near death experience. He found work as a schoolmaster, but continued to live far beyond his means, and once again fell into debt. Then, to make matters worse, he got an attractive young widow, Margaret Triggs Matthews, pregnant. The painter was the product of that irregular relationship. To Charle’s Peale’s Sr’s credit he married Margaret. Then in 1749, when his son was eight, the ne’er-do-well school master died, leaving his wife penniless with four young children.

The widow Peale then moved to Annapolis, where she supported her family by taking in sewing. Charles Willson Peale’s childhood was thus impoverished. What little education he received came from a charity school. And in 1754, at age thirteen, the unfortunate youth was apprenticed to a saddle maker. Hardly an auspicious beginning!

9. Map of Colonial Maryland

After the death of his father, Charles Willson Peale mother moved the family to Annapolis, where the Peales lived a hand-to-mouth existence.

Upon completing his apprenticeship at age 20, Peale got into the same difficulty as his father. Instead of going out as a journeyman, as apprentices usually did once their training was complete, he borrowed a large sum from his master to set up a shop of his own. He also immediately married and began fathering a large family (there would be, in all, seventeen children by three wives). In order to support his household and pay his debts he undertook other trades besides saddlemaking (all of them self-taught), including upholstery, watch and clock-making, silver-smithing, and finally, portrait painting.

Paine showed enough talent as a painter to win some modest commissions. He read books on technique and paid the painter John Hesselius, for the privilege of watching him at work.

10. John Hesselius, Portrait of the Reveerend Richard Brown (c. 1760)

John Hesselius, portrait of the Rev. Richard Brown (c. 1760)

The relationship between the colonies and Britain began to deteriorate in the early 1760s and young Charles Willson Peale took the side of the revolutionaries in the developing struggle.

12. Port of Boston c. 1764

The port of Boston as it appeared at the time of Peale’s arrival there in 1765

At about this time (July 1765) Peale made an important visit to Boston aboard his brother-in-laws’s coastal schooler. Boston was then the artistic capital of the American colonies. Here he happened upon a shop owned by the nephew of the painter John Smibert, the first European trained artist to settle in the American colonies. Smibert had died in 1751, but his studio was still intact in his former home on Court Street. Peale was deeply impressed and inspired by the works of Smibert on display there.

He also visited John Singleton Copley’s studio on Beacon Hill.   “The sight of Mr. Copley’s picture room was a great feast to me,” Peale declared.

13. Copley, Thaddeus Burr

A prime example of Copley’s extraordinary skill at portraiture is this painting of Thaddeus Burr (1758-60) a Fairfield Connecticut land owner, friend of John Hancock, and close relative of Aaron Burr, later Vice President of the United States (1801-1804). Copley’s handling of fabrics is especially notable. 

Upon arriving home in Maryland, arrangements were made by the wealthy planter Charles Carroll of Carrolton and several Annapolis merchants to send young Peale to England to study painting. He was sent to London with a letter of introduction to the American expatriate master, Benjamin West, who had been sent to London in similar fashion many years earlier by a group of Pennsylvania merchants and had risen to the top of the profession of painter in the British capital.

14. Matthew Pratt, The American School, 1765

This 1765 work of Matthew Pratt, entitled “The American School,” depicts Benjamin West instructing his students, many of them Americans..

15. Benjamin West's Charles Willson Peale, 1769

West’s portrait of Charles Willson Peale, completed in London in 1767

While Peale spent almost three years in London, he did not benefit greatly from his European training, except in a strictly technical sense. He did learn to handle colors better. His paintings became somewhat more subtle. But Peale found the prevailing neo-classical style for which West had become famous uncongenial.

16. West, Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1768)

West’s “Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus” 

In this period the highest form of art was deemed to be to be historical paintings based on classical history, or literary, mythological, and religious themes. Here we see one of West’s most admired historical works, Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus, dating from 1768.

17b. Peale, The Peale Pamily

The Peale Family (1769)

Returning to Annapolis in 1769 after three years absence, Peale produced one of his greatest works, The Peale Family. His canvasses of this period, whatever they may have lacked in sophistication of subjectmatter or composition, were characterized by a gaiety, high spiritedness, and charm. And this was a style that appealed to American taste. In the next few years Peale achieved a considerable measure of success in portraiture. Typical of his work of this period is this portrait of Annapolis architect William Buckland.

18b., Peale's William Buckland (1774; reworked 1789)

Peale’s William Buckland

Peale’s growing reputation prompted George Washington to call him to Mount Vernon in 1772, three years before the outbreak of the American Revolution, where he painted the future revolutionary leader and President, the very first portrait of Washington. Washington was then 40 years of age, and posed in the uniform he had worn fourteen years earlier during the French & Indian War. Over the years, Washington sat for Peale on seventeen separate occasions. Peale’s original portrait of Washington as well as a later portrait of the great man painted a decade later in the final stages of the Revolutionary struggle appear below.

19a. Peale, George Washington asa Colonial Colonel, 1772

Peale’s portrait of George Washington as a Colonial Colonel (1772)

19b. George Washington at Yorktown (1782)

Peale’s George Washington at Yorktown” (1782)

In June 1776, a month before the colonies issued their Declaration of Independence, Peale moved his growing family to Philadelphia, then the largest city and capital of the United States. Later that year he joined the local militia, rising rapidly to the rank first of Lieutenant and then Captain. Washington’s army was retreating across New Jersey following its defeat in New York, and Peale joined the force at Trenton. He participated in the Battle of Princeton in early 1777.

20. Peale, George Washington at the battle of Priceton, 1787-92

Peale’s George Washington at Princeton (1779)

Here we see his painting, completed, in 1779, of General Washington at Princeton, done on a commission for the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. Peale’s reputation was greatly advanced by this canvass, leading to commissions to paint other officers of the army, including Colonel Walter Stewart.

21. Peale, miniture of Colonel Water Stewat, 1781

Peale’s portrait of Walter Stewart

When his enlistment ran out in 1777, Peale returned to Philadelphia. However, he reenlisted when the British seemed to be about to descend on Philadelphia a few months later, and was thus with Washington’s forces at Valley Forge, where he is said to have kept himself busy by painting some 40 minitaures of army officers during the frigid winter.

22. Peale, Miniature of George Walton, 1781

Peale’s miniature of George Walton

When the British subsequently abandoned Philadelphia, Peale settled there for good. The painter was a radical democrat who strongly supported the newly adopted Pennsylvania state constitution which established a one chamber legislature elected by universal male suffrage (an unheard of practice at a time when the franchise elsewhere was limited to property owners).

23. Carpenter's Hall, Philadelphia

Carpenter’s Hall, Philadelphia

Peale was himself elected a member of the Pennsylvania legislature in the early 1780s, becoming a leader in that body, where he was instrumental in securing passage of legislation that provided for the liberation of children born to slaves.

Peale did not, however, long remain in politics. Significantly his years of his service in the legislature was a period of relatively scant artistic accomplishment.

In the years that followed his political service, Peale made what was undoubtedly his most important contribution to American art—the establishment in Philadelphia of the first picture gallery in America. This gallery featured enlargements of his portraits of that he had completed during the war.25a. Peale, Portrait of John Adams, 1791-94

Peale’s portrait of John Adams (1794)

24. Peale, The Artist in his Museum, 1822

Peale’s “The Artist in His Museum” (1822), reflecting his shift away from painting to museum-keeping and science.

26. Peale, The Staircase Group, 1795

Peale’s The Staircase Group (1795)

The most celebrated of the various works that Peale displayed in his museum was a life-sized tromp d’oeuil painting, The Staircase Group, showing two of his sons, Titian above and Raphael below. The painting was set in a door frame with a stair projecting from the bottom so as to fool the onlooker.

A word or two about Peale’s family. As previously noted, Charles Willson Peale had seventeen children, eleven of whom lived to maturity. He was seeking a fourth wife at the time of his death in 1827, at age 87. Also, many members of his family followed tin his footsteps and became painters. In addition, a younger brother, James Peale, took up painting for a living and achieved notable success.

We should also take note of the painterly names Charles Willson gave his many children—such names as Raphael, Rembrant, Titian, Rubens, and Van Dyck. Two of his daughters—Angelica Kaufman and Sophinisba Angiuscola were named for female painters of the Renaissance. Thus Charles Willson Peale was the progenitor of America’s first artistic dynasty. Several members of his family studied art in Europe.

Here we examples of works by his brother James and his son Raphael.

27a. James Peale, Madame Dubocq and her Children, 1836

James Peale’s “Madame Dubocq and her Children” (1836)

27b. Raphaele Peale, Portrait of his brother Rubens Peale with a geranium

Raphael Peale’s painting “Rubens Peale with a Geranium” (1801)

 In the mid-1790s, Peale began supplementing the portraits in his Philadelphia gallery with natural curiosities—stuffed birds, fish, minerals and plants; also, drawings of prehistoric bones recently dug up in Ohio. In fact, he did very little portrait painting after 1794, possibly owing to the presence in Philadelphia of Gilbert Stuart, the man whose career we will be considering next, whose portraits outshone Peale’s in technical brilliance.

Peale the museum keeper also taught himself the art of taxidermy and maintained wide correspondence with the leading scientists of the day.

28. Peale, Exhuming the Mastodon (1808)

Peale’s The Exhuming of the Mastodon (1808)

Then, in 1802, Peale began one of the most famous scientific ventures of early American history, the famous exhuming of a mastodon (actually several mastodons from marl pits in New York State). He constructed a water wheel to drain the pits and employed a crew of 25 laborers to dig up the bones of the giant prehistoric creature. The bones Peale exhumed from these pits were assembled on the floor of his gallery, where he carried out the first reconstruction of an ancient creature anywhere in the world.

29a. Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall)During the years of Peale’s association with the Museum its collection was housed in the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall.

29b.Peale Museum, Independence Hall

Interior view of Peale’s Museum in Independence Hall

Like his good friends Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson Peale was always tinkering. His inventions included a patented new type of fireplace, new designs for wooden bridges, windmills, a velocipede (an early type of bicycle), false teeth made of porcelain, and (in collaboration with Jefferson) the polygraph, a machine for first copy machine.

30. Peale, Self Portrait with Mastodon bones, 1824

Peale at the end of his career, with the bone of a mastodon

Peale is also credited with having established the oldest art academy in the United States. His first attempt to do so, in the 1790s, the Columbianum Academy, failed over a dispute about the propriety of drawing from the human figure. The trustees howled in protest when Peale proposed to bring a nude model into the academy’s studio. Characteristically, when Peale could find no one willing to appear before his students unclothed, the then 54 year old artist himself became Philadelphia’s first nude model.

31. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1805 building

The Pennsylvania Academy of Art, founded by Peale in 1805

Peale was more successful in 1805 when he helped launch the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which was managed on a somewhat more conservative basis. This institution, received a charter in 1806, and thereafter provided a training ground for generations of American artists.

Art historian James Thomas Flexner summed up Peale’s extraordinary contributions to American life and art in the following terms:

Peale was the early American spirit come to life; the spirit of the simple folk. He was ingenious, crotchety, sentimental, kind, given to feats of strength and wild soarings of the imagination, superficial perhaps but interested in everything, part genius and part wastrel, a scorner of tradition who solved problems his own way even if they were the worst way, but whose versatility and optimism prepared the ground for a more complex civilization that would drive men like him from the continent. Peale may not have been a great painter, concluded Flexner, but he was a great man.






































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