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

by Lillian Miller



The idea of family underlay the Peales' choice of subject in other ways as well, whether in Charles Willson Peale's interpretation of Noah and His Ark or in the Exhumation of the Mastodon, a depiction of an tific expedition it pictured and the discovimportant episode not only in his own life but, in the life of the nation -- for the scienery of the mastodon bone were, in Peale's perception, of national as well as personal importance.

Historical figures were regarded as members of the national family; George Washington's virtues and values belonged to all Americans. In contrasting portraits of America's first hero, Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, and Charles Peale Polk reveal their different approach to the problems of portraiture even while they make a similar statement.

For the elder Peale, who painted Washington seven times, Washington's image changed as Washington's position in American perceptions grew into mythological proportions, from a young colonel in the French and Indian Wars through the military hero of the battle of Princeton to the Commander in Chief of the Armies of the United States and President of the Convention of 1787 to the republican president. Charles Peale Polk copied Peale's 1787 image in a half length military portrait many times.

Probably Rembrandt made the most significant leap in his portrayals of Washington, transforming his own life portrait of the President into an American icon by incorporating features from Gilbert Stuart's Athenaeum portrait and his father's 1795 image and permanently ensconcing it in an oak wreath for posterity to admire and emulate as Patriae Pater.

For the elder Peale, nature held the key to man's history and provided examples for mankind to emulate. Art and science were in his Enlightenment philosophy aspects of the same creative process, and whether in landscape paintings, still lifes, or animal paintings the Peales showed their individual identity while pursuing similar ends. Raphaelle, James, Margaretta, Rubens, and Sarah Miriam Peale adopted the Dutch table top tradition and format in their depiction of local fruits, wine, and vegetables.

Raphaelle's stilllifes in their sparkling sparseness contrast with James's luxuriance, but both convey a sense of melancholy at time passing and nature changing. Wasps alight on peaches in Raphaelle's illusions, while yellowing or browning leaves suggest the transience of youthful blooms and the onset of decay in James's work. Margaretta's and Sarah Miriam's stilllifes, on the other hand, express the ebullience of youth, and Rubens, late in life, found meaning in a magpie eating his wedding cake.

Nature as well as the family came together in the Peale museums, a vehicle for educating the public in the wonders of the universe. The museum was not only Charles Willson Peale's "world in miniature," but in its exhibits of animal life, an exemplar for human life. The Peale family lived and grew up in the Philadelphia museum, worked in it along with the father, and later, Rembrandt and Rubens founded similar museums in Baltimore and New York City. Silhouettes were cut at all three museums, providing visitors with inexpensive delicate profiles that they could treasure or exchange with friends and relatives. Occasionally, the museums would offer for the price of admission a silhouette of Thomas Jefferson cut by Raphaelle Peale or of George Washington that would bring these American heroes intimately into American homes. The involvement of family members in the museum's management and development and the educational role that they assumed in the museums suggest how the Peales integrated their various enterprises as artists, museum keepers, naturalists and public educators and related these multiple activities to personal and familial interests.

The Peales also practiced the delicate art of miniature painting on ivory, a more expensive medium than the silhouette but a small enough token to be carried in a pocket, strung on a locket chain, or worn as a pin as an intimate expression of familial love. Raphaelle, James, and James's daughter Anna Claypoole were particularly sought out for these jewel-like portraits that were popular in the first three decades of the nineteenth century .

What happened to the family when its central figure, Charles Willson Peale, died in 1827? The second generation of Peales entered the Victorian period maintaining their dedication to art and nature, but their art became subject to the changes in taste resulting from new artistic developments in the United States and different expectations of the artist. Rembrandt, for instance, fell under the influence of European art, particularly Italian baroque paintings, and not only copied a few during his European travels, but adapted their ideas to his own work. He began to paint "fancy" pictures, generalized sentimental portraits illustrating an abstract idea rather than a specific person, as in Day Dreams. Rubens Peale, whose museums fell into bad times during the economic depression following the Panic of 1837, retired to his wife's farm outside of Philadelphia, and in his seventies, with the help of his daughter Mary Jane, also an artist, began to paint landscapes and stilllifes, copying the work of his uncle James and brother Raphaelle.

Perhaps influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite emphasis on natural detail, he painted small domestic paintings such as he was accustomed to see as habitat backgrounds for museum exhibits, but he also tried his hand at painting panoramic landscapes of the kind so popular in the midcentury. Titian Ramsay Peale traveled to the Pacific islands on the Wilkes Expedition (1837-42) and spent much time in Washington, D. C. as a clerk in the United States Patent Office. Unable to secure a position as naturalist in the newly-organized Smithsonian Institution, he spent his last years in Philadelphia writing a biography of his father and painting lepidoptera and landscapes. His later landscapes, such as Bright House Rehobeth Beach, parallel the emphasis at the time of luminist painters interested in the serenity of the horizontal landscape and in the effect of light and atmosphere on the land and water.

Sarah Miriam Peale's later portraits, like Rembrandt's, demonstrated an interest in the portrait not as a particular image but as a "fancy" picture, telling a story, as in Veil of Mystery of the 1830s; she also felt the influence of later scientific thought as it affected art, and in the 1860s, having moved to St. Louis, she returned to the painting of still life, garnering many prizes at the annual Agricultural Fairs. But by this time the nature of still life had changed, and departing from the Dutch table top tradition, Sarah now painted fruit outdoors as living natural objects.

Like so many American families after the Civil War, the Peales' large progeny dispersed into the vast American interior and the Peale influence was diffused, unlike the focused impact upon art and history made by the first two generations. These artists left behind an important legacy not only the very large body of work that continues to delight and interest us, but, in their persistence in pursuing activities that were not remunerative in their day; they laid the groundwork for generations of artists and naturalists who followed. Their insistence that the study of art and nature was essential for national cultural development and the maintenance of family and community values is as relevant today as it was in their own time, perhaps even more so.


About the Author

At the time of writing of In Pursuit of Fame: Rembrandt Peale, 1778 - 1860, Lillian B. Miller, now deceased, was Historian of American Culture at the National Portrait Gallery,Washington, DC.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above article was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on June 6, 2007. According to the National Portrait Gallery,Washington, DC, the article was written by the author while employed by the Gallery and is in the pubic domain. The National Portrait Gallery is a facility of the United States Government.

This essay was also previously published in American Art Review, Volume VIII, Number 6, December, 1996, pages 138-145

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