Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

San Francisco, CA


California Palace of the Legion of Honor, photos: John Hazeltine


The Peale Family: Creation of an American Legacy, 1770-1870

January 25, 1997-April 6 1997


Rarely does a traveling exhibition come to San Francisco that bears such a symbiotic relationship to the permanent collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco as does The Peale Family: Creation of an American Legacy, 1770-1870, a landmark exhibition celebrating the achievements of one extraordinary family of painters. The presentation of 145 paintings features the work of seven men and three women, each of whom created paintings that were remarkable for their time and that remain among the most beloved in all American art. The Peales' portraits and history painting are an eloquent and detailed chronicle of the most notable people and events of the republic's early history.

Although the works of the male members are well known, the exhibition reveals that the female members of the family also excelled and achieved a status that no other women artists in American had previously known. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to see long-familiar paintings from East Coast collections, works that rarely travel. These include such celebrated paintings as Charles Willson Peale 's charming The Staircase Group of 1795, from the Philadelphia Museum, a delightful portrayal of the painter's young sons and a virtuosic exercise in trompe l'oeil painting; his entertaining Exhumation of the Mastodon of 1806, from the Baltimore City Life Museums; and Rembrandt Peale's beautiful and touching portrait of his younger brother, Rubens Peale with Geranium, of 1801, from the National Gallery of Art. Among the highlights of the show are the 1822 Self-Portrait by Charles Willson Peale and Raphaelle Peale's jewel-like still life, Blackberries, of around 1813, both gifts of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd to the Fine Arts Museums. Blackberries, a fragile work on wood panel, will be seen only in San Francisco.

Arguably, the most enduring legacy of the remarkable Peale family of painters is the collective influence they had on their contemporaries and on successive generations of artists working in Philadelphia and in the northeastern United States. The American art collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco fully illustrates the extent of the Peales' legacy with such paintings as Letitia Grace McCurdy (ca.1800-1802)) by Joshua Johnson (active 1796-1824), the first recorded professional painter of African descent, who almost certainly painted in Charles Willson Peale's studio. Furthermore, the museums' outstanding holdings of trompe l'oeil ["fool the eye"] still lifes by William Michael Harnett (1848-1892) andJohn Frederick Peto (1854-1907) owe an obvious debt to the work of Raphaelle and Margaretta Peale. Harnett and Peto were first identified in the 1950s by San Francisco Chronicle art critic Alfred Frankenstein, and the San Francisco collection is one of the best in the country. This heritage is evident also in the work of William J. McCloskey (1859-1941), such as the painting Oranges in Tissue Paper, which was a Rockefeller gift in 1979. Few public collections of American painting point up so dramatically the influence of these gifted individuals as that at the de Young. This opportunity to view the major icons by the Peale family of painters and immediately follow their influence throughout American art is very rare indeed.


The Example of the Father

The inscription on the tombstone of Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) in Old St. Peter's churchyard, Philadelphia, aptly reads: "He participated in the Revolutionary struggle for independence... As an artist contributed to the history of his country...Was an energetic citizen and patriot, and in private life, beloved by all who knew him."

Peale's was truly a remarkable life dedicated to public service and the furthering of democratic ideals, to the advancement of scientific and philosophical thinking, and, most especially, to his large and gifted family. The record of his unparalleled stature as a patriot, man of science, and father is both the body of paintings that he created through a long and distinguished career and those of his admiring family group, which included an eminent painting brother, four famous artist sons, three distinguished painting nieces and a well-known artist nephew.

Nearly every member of the extended Peale family dabbled in the arts. But under the influence of Charles Willson Peale, the ten most prominent painting Peales defined artistic conventions in Philadelphia at the end of the 18th century and dominated the region's art life through the next hundred years.

Charles Willson Peale, born in Queen Anne's County, Maryland in 1741, the son of an artisan, was a man of unbridled enthusiasm for painting. Having received instruction in the colonies from portraitists John Hesselius in Maryland and John Singleton Copley in Boston, he demonstrated his grand ambitions by traveling to London in 1766 to study in the studio of the Philadelphian Benjamin West. West was then emerging as the premier history painter in England and would eventually become painter to King George III and the president of the Royal Academy of Art. Under West, Peale gained fluency in the conventions of the stylish Grand Manner of portraiture and narrative painting based on prototypes from antiquity and the Old Masters. Back home, he passed along his knowledge and enthusiasm to his younger brother, James, and made clear his hopes for his offspring by naming several of his children, both sons and daughters, after painters: Rembrandt, Rubens, Raphaelle, Titian, and Angelica Kauffmann.

Charles Willson Peale moved from Annapolis to Philadelphia, then the cultural and political center of the colonies, in 1776, bringing his skills as an artist to the aid of the revolution. Following the War of Independence, Peale became one of the first painters to portray the new nation's war heroes and leaders, painting George Washington as both military general and President and portraying other luminaries as well, including America's greatly admired French ally, the Marquis de Lafayette; Thomas Jefferson; Captain Joseph Brant, Chief of the Mohawks; and, later, General Andrew Jackson.

In 1786, Peale established in Philadelphia his museum of natural specimens of animal, bird, and plant life, relics from the country's ancient past, and an extensive portrait gallery of America's notables, which grew to over 250 subjects. The museum occupied Peale for the next 40 years and represents one of the artist's most important achievements: his pioneering effort to popularize art and intellectual pursuits in America as a true expression of the glory of democracy.


An Extraordinary Family

Charles Willson Peale was the father of 17 children, many either artists or naturalists. Four of his sons were painters. Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825), the oldest child to survive infancy, defied popular taste for portraits and eventually made still-life painting his specialty, creating some of the most beautiful examples in American art. Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860), the second son, succeeded his father as one of the most sought-after portraitists of his day and established his own museum in Baltimore. Rubens Peale (1784-1865), the fourth son, managed his father's Philadelphia museum and his brother's Baltimore museum, and founded his own museum in New York; he dabbled in still life painting as an extension of his interest in natural history. Titian Peale (1799-1885), the youngest (and the second Peale son to bear that name), was an explorer, naturalist, and artist whose zoological illustrations rivaled those of John James Audubon; his early work in photography contributed to interest in and development of the new medium.

There were distinguished painters in Peale's extended family as well.Peale's much younger brother James Peale (1749-1831) became a highly skilled painter of miniature portraits on ivory and the only rival to Raphaelle Peale in the area of still-life painting in the early years of the 19th century. Charles Peale Polk (1767-1822), the orphaned son of Charles Willson Peale's sister, was raised and trained by his uncle and also became a highly successful portrait painter.


The Daughters

Several Peale daughters were among the first acknowledged women painters in America. Angelica Kauffmann Peale (1775-1853), daughter of Charles Willson Peale (and named after his favorite female painter) had been instructed in drawing by her father and enjoyed a close relationship with him. Sarah Mirriam Peale (1800-1885), daughter of James Peale, was the most celebrated of the Peale women, painting portraits and still lifes through the first decades of the 19th century. In 1818, Sarah and her sister Anna Claypoole Peale (1791-1878), a gifted miniature painter, were elected to membership in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the first women artists to be so honored.Their sister Margaretta Angelica Peale (1795-1882) also excelled at still-life painting. Rosalba Carriera Peale (1799-1874), daughter of Rembrandt, was a portraitist, landscape painter, and lithographer. Mary Jane Peale (1827-1902), the only daughter of Rubens Peale, was his teacher in art, having acquired her own training from her uncle Rembrandt and from Philadelphia portraitist Thomas Sully. The careers of these women were aided by an expanding class of art patrons in the early years of the 19th century and by increased opportunities for exhibitions in galleries and art academies.


The Family as Source

For all the various Peales' individual successes and wide-ranging interests, the exhibition makes clear that family was, for all of these artists, a lifelong source of inspiration. As Lillian Miller has noted, "the republican ideal of the family as the matrix of a healthy society and civic harmony permeated the art of Charles Willson Peale and influenced the work of the young Peale artists." Perhaps no works in the exhibition are as captivating as those which take as their subjects the Peales themselves. Family groups, portraits, and self portraits convey a strong sense of self among all the various Peales, to be sure. But they also suggest a great joy of family life and a strong desire to honor deep affections through their art.

The Peale Family: Creation of an American Legacy, 1770-1870 was organized by The Trust for Museum Exhibitions in association with Dr. Lillian B. Miller, the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, with the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation, Inc., and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Federal agency. Funding from the Ednah Root Foundation has made this exhibition possible in San Francisco. The curator in San Francisco is Patricia Junker, Associate Curator of American Paintings.

Exhibition itinerary: Philadelphia Museum of Art, November 3, 1996-January 5, 1997; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, January 25, 1997-April 6, 1997; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, April 26, 1997-July 6, 1997.


Read more about the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in Resource Library.


Resource Library editor's note:

For biographical information on artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists

This article was originally published in 1997.

Rev. 8/27/09

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