Charles Willson Peale

(American, 1741 - 1827)

The artist, naturalist, and museum proprietor Charles Willson Peale was born in 1741 in Queen Anne's County, Maryland. Apprenticed as a saddler, he became a painter in the 1760's by studying the work of other artists, including John Hesselius and John Singleton Copley, whom he met in Boston in 1765. A group of prominent Maryland citizens provided funds that enabled him to study with Benjamin West in London from 1767 to 1769. After returning to the Colonies, Peale was active as a portrait painter in Maryland, Virginia and in Philadelphia, where he moved in 1776. Active in Whig political circles and an ardent supporter of the American Revolution, Peale saw active duty in the Pennsylvania militia. The Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania commissioned him to paint a full-length of George Washington in 1789 that commemorated the victories at Princeton and Trenton, the first official portrait of Washington (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts). Peale was on friendly terms with many patriots, soldiers, politicians, and scientists of his era, and in 1782 began painting portraits of them that he exhibited in his museum as a “Gallery of Great Men.” Peale trained many of his family members to paint, including his brother James, his nephew Charles Peale Polk, and his sons Raphaelle, Rembrandt, and Rubens Peale who all became important American artists. Peale was one of the founders of the Columbianum (or American Academy of the Fine Arts), the first American artists' society, which held its only public exhibition in Philadelphia in 1795, and also became a founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1805. Toward the end of his career Peale was primarily occupied with his museum of natural history in Philadelphia, which he moved to Independence Hall in 1802. This interest is documented in two of his masterpieces, The Exhumation of the Mastodon (18 ; Baltimore), and The Artist in his Museum (1822; The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts). Peale turned the museum over to Rubens Peale in 1810 and moved to "Belfield Farm" near Philadelphia. He returned to the city in 1821 and resumed managing the museum. Peale died at the age of eighty six and was buried at St. Peter's churchyard in Philadelphia. Edgar Richardson, in Charles Willson Peale and His World (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1973), p. 101, succinctly appraised the artist: "He was an artist of a strong, simple, severe neoclassic style; a pioneer in American natural history and in the development of the public museum; and a man of great skill, ingenuity, and benevolence."