Rembrandt Peale

(American, 1778 - 1860)

Rembrandt Peale was born in 1778 in Bucks County during the early years of the American Revolution at a time when his father, Charles Willson, served in the Pennsylvania militia and participated in the New Jersey campaign and the battles at Valley Forge. In June of 1778 the family returned to Philadelphia from the countryside. Rembrandt began to draw at the age of eight, and by thirteen had produced his first self portrait in oils. By the time he was sixteen his father was promoting him professionally along with his brother, Raphaelle, in newspaper notices while at the same time announcing that he was retiring from painting. In 1795 Charles Willson arranged for Rembrandt to paint a portrait of President Washington from life, a subject which Rembrandt would continually copy and alter, especially in his later career. The Congress of the United States purchased one of his versions of Washington, Patriae Pater, in 1832. In 1796 Raphaelle and Rembrandt opened the first Peale Museum in Baltimore with the support of their father. The new Museum featured sixty five portraits, two hundred preserved animals, and Indian costumes. Anxious to go to Europe for the purpose of study, Rembrandt sought a post in France, England, or Italy in December of 1800, but nothing materialized. In 1800 Rembrandt opened his "painting room" in Philadelphia and in an attempt to set himself apart from the other Peales advertised in Poulson's American Daily Advertiser. This also was not successful and within a year, he had applied for a position with a Philadelphia bank. His father's new project to exhume the mastodon involved Rembrandt (as well as the whole family) and "rescued" him from the business world. The bones were recovered (two sets) in New York State and by October of 1802 Rembrandt and Rubens were in London where the skeleton was put on display. The trip was important not for its financial success and support which the Peales had mistakenly expected, but for the exposure Rembrandt gained to many of the great paintings in British collections. Between 1802 1803 Rembrandt studied in Benjamin West's gallery and at the Royal Academy where he exhibited two portraits. Rembrandt returned to Philadelphia in 1803 and by January of 1804 along with Raphaelle travelled to Savannah, Georgia and then, Charleston, South Carolina. The brothers had been to the South once before in 1795 in search of portrait commissions; the purpose of this trip was to raise money from the exhibition of the mastodon, and to introduce the physiognotrace and John Isaac Hawkin's new invention, the polygraph. They returned to Philadelphia by July after a successful trip. In 1805 Rembrandt became one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Rembrandt travelled to Paris in 1808 to study and again in 1809 but returned to settle in Philadelphia by 1810. He then opened his Apollodorian Gallery to exhibit the new works inspired by images which he saw overseas: large, historical, narrative works. In 1814 he moved to Baltimore in hopes of a more enthusiastic response. The Baltimore museum building, designed by Robert Carey Long, Sr., was the first building in America to be designed specifically for use as a museum; it became the center of the city's cultural life. Unfortunately, Rembrandt was plagued by continual financial difficulties as a result of his involvement in the Gas Light Company of Baltimore and this financial drain affected the success of the museum. He attempted to improve his financial position by sending a major work, The Court of Death (1820) on tour. Though the reception of this moralistic work was successful, the expense involved in touring the painting adversely affected the revenue received. In 1822 Rembrandt finally sold the Baltimore museum to his brother, Rubens to whom he was in debt and established a studio in New York. He made a final trip to Europe in 1829 1830 where he visited Italy, France, and England. He spent most of his time touring Italy, copying the great Italian paintings. During his career Rembrandt spent time in New York where he became a founding member of the National Academy of Design and president of the American Academy of Fine Arts and some time in Boston before permanently settling in Philadelphia. Upon his return to Philadelphia, he published Notes on Italy (1831), Graphics (1834 1836), and articles in The Crayon in 1855, 1856, and 1857. He taught writing and drawing at Central High School in Philadelphia and lectured on his paintings of Washington. In 1840 he stopped teaching to devote himself to painting and regretted the time he felt he had lost from painting.