|Biography: ||James Peale was born in Chestertown, Maryland, and in 1762, at age 13, became a journeyman in the saddlery business of his brother, Charles Willson Peale. This was followed by an apprenticeship to a cabinetmaker in 1765. About 1769 James joined his brother’s painting studio as a frame maker, painting fitter, and general assistant.|
In a letter of 1771, Charles Willson records that his brother was painting by that date.1 However, James’s early career was interrupted by the Revolutionary War, during which he quickly rose to first lieutenant in General William Smallwood's Maryland regiment. In 1778 he was promoted to captain, and although he resigned his commission the next year, he remained in the army a while longer, no doubt in response to special pleading from George Washington. After leaving the army, James moved to Philadelphia, where he lived with Charles Willson’s family until, in 1782, he married Mary C. Claypoole (1753-1829), sister of the artist James Claypoole (c. 1743-1800).
After the war, faced with difficulties in finding painting commissions, James benefitted from an arrangement (beginning in 1786) whereby he would specialize in painting portrait miniatures in watercolor on ivory while Charles Willson painted life-size portraits in oil. James would become known as one of the country’s best miniaturists.
James, like many members of the distinguished Peale family of artists, enjoyed a long life and actively painted to the end. The range of his output is extraordinary. Although he had also painted in oils even while specializing in miniatures, failing eyesight caused him to give up miniature painting entirely about 1810. A fine portraitist and one of the founders of the still-life tradition in America, he was also an excellent landscapist in the generation before the full-blown emergence of the Hudson River School. His legacy survived in his children, whom he taught to paint. One daughter, Anna Claypoole Peale (1791-1878), became one of the best miniaturists of her period; another daughter, Sarah Miriam Peale (1800-1885), is considered the first professional female artist the country produced.
1. Charles Willson Peale to Benjamin West, Apr. 20, 1771, in The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, ed. Lillian Miller et al., vol. 1, Charles Willson Peale: The Artist in Revolutionary America, 1735-1791 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 95.
Adapted from an essay by Linda Crocker Simmons
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