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Charles Willson Peale

 (1741 - 1827)
Charles Willson Peale was active/lived in Maryland, Pennsylvania.  Charles Peale is known for portrait, figure and historical genre painting.

Charles Willson Peale

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Biography from the Archives of askART

Born in Chester, Maryland in 1741, Charles Willson Peale became one of the major figures in American art and in other areas such as military figure, naturalist, curator, and inventor. He developed an art and natural history museum that became world famous, especially for the gallery of artwork that had his more than 250 portraits of distinguished Americans. In his home, Peale charged admission to persons to see his depictions of American heroes. By 1788, he opened a natural history museum in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and eventually accumulated over 100,000 items that included paintings, fossils, minerals, stuffed animals, and skeletons.

In 1795, he opened his own art academy, which was not a success, and in 1805, he became one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Academy.

His father was a schoolmaster who died prematurely, and Charles grew up as the eldest son in Annapolis, Maryland and helped support his widowed mother. He apprenticed in saddle making, silver smithing, sign painting and portraiture, and had several lessons with painter John Hesselius to whom he gave a saddle in exchange for instruction. He also studied in Boston with portraitist and silversmith John Singleton Copley and with painter John Smibert.

When he returned to Maryland from his Boston training, his talent was recognized by men who were planters and they raised subscription money for him to study with expatriate history and portrait painter, Benjamin West, in London. He also studied the Italian masters in Italy. In 1769 he returned to Annapolis and there became an established portraitist in the neo-classical style learned from Benjamin West. For additional commissions, he traveled to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Williamsburg, Virginia and to Mount Vernon, home of George and Martha Washington. In 1775, he moved to Philadelphia where he hoped to find more portrait subjects. Shortly after, he joined the militia and fought with Washington at the battles of Princeton and Trenton, and during this period created miniatures of army personnel. In 1778, he settled in Philadelphia but continued to visit Baltimore and the eastern shore of Maryland.

From 1810 to 1821, he lived as a gentleman farmer near Philadelphia but returned to the city in 1822 to take over the management of the Peale Museum.

His fourteen portraits of George Washington include the first authentic likeness of him and include seven portraits painted from life. At Valley Forge where he was painting General Washington, Peale also painted portraits of many other colonial leaders including the Marquis de Lafayette.

An outspoken anti-royalist, Peale served in the Revolutionary War and alienated many of his wealthy patrons with their British loyalties. From three marriages, he had three children, many whom became artists. In 1827, Charles Peale died at age 86, the result of catching a cold while crossing a body of water to court a woman.

Michael David Zellman, "300 Years of American Art"
Peter Falk, "Who Was Who in American Art"

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
Charles Willson Peale was born in Chester, Queen Anne's County, Maryland, in 1741. Along with Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale was one of America's leading artists during the American Revolution. .His career began by serving as an apprenticeship to a saddler and woodcarver in Annapolis.  In 1762, he went into the saddling trade on his own.  He received his first painting lessons from John Hesselius and later studied in London under Benjamin West.  While residing in Annapolis, between 1769 and 1772, he received painting commissions in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Williamsburg.  He lived in Mt. Vernon from 1772 to 1775 and served in the Continental Army from 1775 until 1778, when he settled permanently in Philadelphia.

As a resident of Philadelphia, Peale became acquainted with many of America's revolutionary-era heroes, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, whose portraits he painted.  Peale was married three times, fathering 17 children.  He was the patriarch of an extended family of artists including Raphaelle, James, Rembrandt, Rubens, Franklin, Sarah Miriam and Titian Ramsay Peale, who produced portraits, still life and landscape paintings.  All of them became well known. Peale fancied himself as a Renaissance man and had many interests.  "He was a harness maker, upholsterer, watch and clock maker, chaise and sign painter, silversmith, scientist, inventor, taxidermist [and] archaeologist…" among other things.(1)  He founded the nation's first public museum, The Philadelphia Museum (now the Independence National Historic Park), in 1778 and opened a painting gallery in 1782.  He designed battle flags and patriotic spectacles, such as parade floats and triumphal arches, and helped establish the first artist's association in America. 

Typical of Peale's sophisticated, neoclassical style are the paintings of the late 1780s and early 1790s.  These show evidence of his preference for plainness in depicting his subjects.  Hoping to illuminate certain admirable personality traits, he sought to focus the viewer's attention on the essential aspects of his sitter's face as a way to suggest their character.  Edgar Richardson describes Peale's portraits of the late eighteenth century in these terms: "A strong outline defines the forms; the light is even and clear; the drawing is exact; color, in broad areas, is almost enameled."(2)

1. Milton Brown, American Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1970), 133.
2. Edgar Richardson, Charles Willson Peale and His World (New York: Crowell, 1956), 68.
Submitted by the Staff of the Columbus Museum

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About  Charles Willson Peale

Born:  1741 - Chester, Maryland
Died:   1827 - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Known for:  portrait, figure and historical genre painting