Peale, Charles Willson
Oil on canvas, 38 7/8 × 27 1/8 inches
Signed and dated lower left: "C. WPeale, paintd 1789"
Provenance: By direct descent through the sitter’s family.
References: J. Hall Pleasants and Howard Sill, Maryland Silversmiths 1715–1830 (Baltimore: Lord Baltimore Press, 1930), pp. 134–136. Charles Coleman Sellers, "Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge 42 (1952), pp. 106–107, figs. 225 and 226. Lillian B. Miller, ed., The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, vol. 1: Charles Willson Peale: Artist in Revolutionary America, 1735–1791 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 537–538, 550–552, 562. Garrett Power, "The Carpenter and the Crocodile," Maryland Historical Magazine 91 (Spring 1996), pp. 4–15.
Note: this item is part of a pair with a portrait of the sitter's wife Peggy Sanderson Hughes. The following discussion pertains to both works.
The multifaceted Charles Willson Peale, along with John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), and Benjamin West (1738–1820), was one of America’s first major artists; he was also noted as a natural history museum proprietor. Peale was born in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, and trained as a saddler. He took up portraiture during the 1760s, following the examples of John Hesselius (1728–1778) and Copley, whom he met in Boston in 1765. Financial support of some prominent Maryland citizens enabled Peale to study art in London with West from 1767 to 1769.
After returning to his native country, Peale painted portraits in Maryland, Virginia, and Philadelphia, where he settled in 1776. An avid supporter of the American Revolution, he served in the Pennsylvania militia and became acquainted with many prominent military officers and politicians. He painted the first official portrait of George Washington (1779, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), created a "Gallery of Great Men" comprising bust portraits of Revolutionary heroes and patriots, the majority of which are now owned by Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. He trained his brother James Peale (1749–1831), his nephew Charles Peale Polk (1767–1822), and his sons Raphaelle Peale (1774–1825), Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860), Rubens Peale (1784–1865), and Titian Ramsay Peale (1799–1885), who all became important painters. Active in art organizations, Peale was a founder of America’s first art society, the Columbianum, in 1795, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1805. Peale continued painting portraits, but his activity gradually tapered off during the early years of the nineteenth century as he became increasingly occupied with the museum of natural history that he established in Independence Hall in 1802. He died in Philadelphia.
The merchant and silversmith Christopher Hughes (1744–1824) was born in Ireland and immigrated to Baltimore during the early 1770s. He entered into a partnership with John Carnan, and they advertised in the Maryland Journal & Baltimore Advertiser as goldsmiths and jewelers "at the sign of the CUP and CROWN, the corner of Market and Gay Streets." After they dissolved the partnership in 1774, Hughes continued the business alone. He married Peggy Sanderson (1760–1825), also a native of Ireland, on January 6, 1779. The couple had seven children; their youngest son, Christopher Hughes, Jr. (1786–1849), became a career diplomat who was noted for having served in 1814 as secretary to the American delegation at the Treaty of Ghent, Belgium, that concluded the War of 1812. Hughes made a fortune around 1780, when the new American paper currency failed, and gold and silver were in demand. By the time Peale painted this pair of portraits, Hughes was a wealthy entrepreneur who was active in banking and real estate, and owned brickyards.1
Peale documented in his diary the circumstances under which he came to paint the Hughes portraits. Shortly after completing one of his most famous works, the double portrait of Benjamin and Eleanor Ridgely Laming (1788, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), Peale had breakfast with Hughes in Baltimore on the morning of October 7, 1788. The artist recorded that Hughes, who may have desired to commemorate his tenth wedding anniversary, "wanted me to paint his family & take wine & Rum in payment—which I have to consider on." Peale lodged at Hughes’s house on the evening of December 12, when he noted that the merchant "agreed that I should paint his & Lady’s pictures in half-Length size. I offer to add one of the children as a compensation for the board of myself and son." He commenced work on the portraits "with but little intermission to the end of the Year." Peale was still working on Hughes’s portrait on New Year’s Day, 1789, when he presented Mrs. Hughes with a "print of Genl. Washington on white sattin [sic] to ornament a Muff." On January 2, "Mrs. Hughes & child sat for finishing the likenesses." The next day, "Mr. Hughes sat for the drapery," and his portrait was completed the following day. Peale retouched both paintings on January 11. Evidently he did not accept payment entirely in wine and rum because Hughes gave him fifty dollars. On May 1 he delivered and received payment for two frames for the portraits; that same day Mrs. Hughes reimbursed Peale for a "Cushion & curb" (a horse rein) he had bought for her in Philadelphia.2
The artist presented a dignified and portly Hughes wearing a wig and seated in a fashionable Chippendale ribbon-back armchair whose style suggests that it was made in Philadelphia. He is set in a formal and somewhat archaic pose for the period, with his right hand tucked in his vest. In his left hand he holds a leather-bound book whose spine is inscribed "YOUNG’S/NIGHT/THOUGHTS," a poem by the English clergyman and poet Edward Young (1683–1765) that was popular at the time.3 In the left background is a view of the wharfs in Baltimore harbor, looking toward Federal Hill where Hughes owned property. The schooner may allude to the sitter’s mercantile interests. Peale presented Hughes purely as a gentleman with literary interests, and the image is devoid of any allusions to his former profession as a silversmith.
The Peale authority Charles Coleman Sellers considered the much less formal double portrait of Peggy Sanderson Hughes and her daughter who holds a doll as "one of Peale’s cleverest compositions."4 In this respect the artist was probably influenced by the British portraitist John Wollaston, who was active in colonial America from 1749 to 1759 and included dolls in his depictions of mothers and daughters.5 The girl’s identity is uncertain: she is either the fourth Hughes daughter, Peggy (1786–1843), or the fifth daughter, Louisa (1787–1861), future wife of Colonel George Armistead, the American hero of the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812.
Peale’s portrait of Hughes was indirectly involved in a public controversy that erupted between the former silversmith and a real estate speculator named Leonard Harbaugh. Harbaugh leased property from Hughes on Baltimore harbor that he had developed into Harbaugh’s Wharf. When he encountered financial difficulties and was unable to honor the terms of the lease, Hughes terminated the agreement and demanded payment for back rent, placing a notice to that effect in the Maryland Journal & Baltimore Advertiser on December 11, 1789. On December 14, Harbaugh responded with a notice of his own in which he dismissed Hughes’s claim as "the Croaking of a hungry crocodile for more Plunder," and derided Hughes as "a crooked serpent," "a porpoise," "a bugbear," "a hungry wolf," and "a devil." Alluding specifically to Peale’s portrait of Hughes, Harbaugh continued: "I have done you more justice in drawing your general character, even than Mr. Peale has in drawing your fine picture, though it is believed in general that it is not the artist’s fault but your particular request to counterfeit one of your chins." Hughes soon repossessed the land, and Harbaugh was forced to flee Baltimore, as a historian put it, "one step ahead of the sheriff."6
These exceptionally fine and important portraits retain their original frames that, according to Sellers, were made by Peale’s younger brother James Peale (1749–1831).
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