Editor's note: The following essay, excerpted without illustrations from the exhibition catalogue In This Academy: The Pennsylvanian Academy of the Fine Arts 1805 - 1976, is reprinted July 24, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, directly through either this phone number or web address:


Charles Willson Peale and His Family of Painters

By Louise Lippincott


In my view of the Academy of fine arts, its objects are to bring forth the dormant Genius of the Pencil; and give the public a true taste of the merits of Painting.
A Genius in obscurity by exhibiting a good Picture is brought into Notice, and thus meets with lncouragement.
A Painter viewing his pictures in his painting-Room, may think his work faultless, but putting them into a Picture Gallery, the Artist then see's his faults, consequently he will improve in some parts of his labors.
-- Charles Willson Peale to the Managers of the Pennsylvania Academy
May 20, 1821 PAFA Archives


Although members of the Peale family were painting through the nineteenth century, their aesthetic was rooted firmly in the eighteenth. The remarkable continuity of the family style, uninfluenced by the developments in nineteenth-century painting, the invention and improvement of the camera, and the beginnings of modern art, can be ascribed to the work and to the character of the dynasty's founder, Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). The theories which Peale developed during his career as a painter in the eighteenth century shaped his family's approach to art and life, which endured through four generations. Blessed with an optimistic nature, a hand skilled for every task, and a keen interest in contemporary issues, regardless of importance, Peale led a happy, busy, and extremely long life. His hopes of sharing his happiness and success were evident in his efforts to teach most of his family to paint and in his constant interest in their careers. His perseverance was only partially rewarded, however; if most of his family applied his theories of art and life to their work and careers, few of them were successful. Nevertheless, the Peale tradition persisted to the twentieth century, although its adherents lacked the talents and energies which characterized its founder.

Throughout his career as a portrait painter Charles Willson Peale was concerned with two problems which shaped his painting style and determined his advice to his family. The first was how to paint an acceptable likeness, and the second, how to find adequate patronage. The importance of these prosaic concerns in his career distinguishes Peale from his teachers Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley, who transcended such minor considerations to make important contributions to the development of English art theory. In contrast to the attitudes of these two masters, Peale's manner of thinking was closer to that of the early eighteenth-century itinerant artist or craftsman.

The foundations for Peale's approach to the art of portraiture were laid very early in his career. A saddle-maker's apprentice until he was twenty, Peale married his first of three wives in 1762 and established his own saddlery business in Annapolis, Maryland. He soon accepted his younger brother James (1749-1831) as an apprentice. His responsibility for his family, coupled with debts incurred in beginning his business, led him to experiment with other trades including watch repair and sign and portrait painting. He mastered portraiture in the same way he learned to fix watches -- by trying. Seeing the work of a local painter in 1763, he determined to do better, and, equipped with a few home-made brushes and paints, he executed a self-portrait. From the beginning, Peale viewed painting as a craft rather than as an art, and as a means of support for his family rather than as an intellectual endeavor. This pragmatic attitude insulated him later from the elevated theories of Benjamin West and Joshua Reynolds in the eighteenth century and from the romantic visions and impractical experiments of his son Rembrandt in the nineteenth.

In 1763 Peale traveled to Philadelphia, where he purchased a book on painting, Handmaid to the Arts, and proper brushes and colors. The improvement these aids produced encouraged him to take painting lessons from John Hesselius and to consider painting seriously as a viable alternative to saddlery.

Like Hesselius and most other contemporary portraitists, Peale found he had to travel to find commissions. In 1765 travel became an absolute necessity when his Annapolis creditors took steps to have him imprisoned for debt. That year he stopped briefly in Boston, and, after seeing examples of John Smibert's work exhibited in a paint shop, he was directed to the painting room of John Singleton Copley. For the two weeks of his visit, Peale visited Copley regularly and was profoundly influenced by his work. Copley gave Peale a portrait painted by lamplight to copy, initiating the Peale tradition of the lamplight portrait as a trial of skill. Peale may also have seen Copley's portrait of John Hancock (1765; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) for he adopted the three-quarter-length seated pose soon afterward in his portrait of James Arbuckle (1766; Collection of Mrs. Walter B. Guy). From Hesselius and Copley, Peale learned to respect a good likeness and to think of painting as an imitation of reality.

Peale worked as an itinerant portrait painter until 1767, never earning enough to pay off his debts, but impressing his Philadelphia patrons with his talent and with his desire to improve. In 1766-67 several of them raised a subscription that enabled Peale to study with Benjamin West in London. Peale was quickly disappointed with his English training, perhaps because it had little practical relevance to the problems and limitations of painting in America. West had all but abandoned portraiture in favor of the grander art of history painting and probably had little patience with Peale's less elevated aspirations. He was unable to dissuade Peale from the basic tenet of his painting -- that a scrupulous likeness of the sitter guaranteed a pleasing portrait.

This hard-edged realism had characterized Copley's American work as well. It was a style consistent with American pragmatism. English portraiture, on the other hand, had been moving away from the exact imitation of reality. Joshua Reynolds was beginning to develop his theories[1] of generalized form and erudite allusion in portraiture, as illustrated by Lady Sarah Bunbury Sacrificing to the Graces (1765; Art Institute of Chicago), which Peale may have seen in London. Peale's attempts in a similar vein were distressingly awkward. William Pitt (1768; Westmoreland County Museum), which Peale reproduced in mezzotint (cat. no. 91), shows the statesman in Roman armor in a setting of symbolic statuary, inscribed scrolls, and patriotic mottoes. Peale's obvious discomfort with such an elaborate format was no doubt increased by the necessity of copying the head from another portrait, as the minister was too busy to sit.

Any pretensions to the grand style of portraiture Peale may have entertained were discouraged after his return to Annapolis in 1769. His American audience was less sophisticated than the English patrons Pitt was designed to please. Since Americans had little patience with the philosophical trappings of English neoclassical portraiture, the mezzotint failed to sell in the colonies, even when a lengthy explanation of its symbolism was included. Consequently in his full-length portraits painted in America between 1770 and 1776, Peale discarded the use of classical garb in favor of contemporary dress but continued to employ symbolic devices such as flowers, scrolls, and sculptures. During the Revolution, Peale replaced symbolic objects with straightforward narrative details describing the sitter and his situation in life. Such details form the background of George Washington at Princeton (cat. no. 140) and illustrate the stages of Peale's career in his later self-portrait, The Artist in His Museum (cat. no. 100). Most of Peale's commissions during the 1770s were for simple head-and-bust or half-length portraits. With these, he developed his skill and his speed at taking likenesses.

As he abandoned English portrait conventions and returned to American realism, Peale's admiration of Copley revived. Hearing that Copley was in New York in 1772, Peale journeyed north to see him. He found Copley preparing to move to England to try his hand at history painting. Peale was surprised by Copley's sudden interest in Reynolds's "generalities." He had struggled to imitate the hard-edged realism of Copley's American portraits only to find Copley advocating English styles. But Peale accepted the limitations of his own abilities and of his patrons' tastes. He wrote from New York:

What I do is by mier [sic] imitation of what is before me, perhaps I have a good Eye, that is all; ... a good painter of either portrait or History must be well acquainted with the Grecian and Roman statues to be able to draw them at pleasure by memory, and account for every beauty in all he sees-These are some of the requisites of a good painter. These are more than I shall ever have time or opportunity to know, but as I have variety of Characters to paint 1 must [do as] Rembrandt did make them my Anticks [Antiques] and improve myself as well as 1 can while I am painting for my support.[2]

Although Peale continued to regard English history painting and portraiture as an aesthetic ideal, he gradually ceased to emulate it in his own work.

Peale supported his growing family and paid off his debts by resuming his career as an itinerant painter, centered in Annapolis, although his search for patronage took him more and more often to Philadelphia, the leading city in the colonies. Its large, prosperous population promised him plenty of business without the necessity of travel. In 1776, on the eve of the Revolution, Peale and his family moved to Philadelphia. He was just getting into business when the war began, and he joined Washington's army as a member of the Philadelphia militia. His brother James, still resident in Annapolis, enlisted in a Maryland regiment.

The war halted Peale's portrait work temporarily but ensured a flourishing miniature business. Miniatures, small and intimate, were popular presents which soldiers sent to their families back home. Peale required only three short sittings to complete a likeness, and his equipment was small and easy to carry. Thus, while Charles Willson Peale participated in the battles of Princeton and Trenton, the years 1776 and 1777 are notable for his output of miniatures, over one hundred fifty each year. Another benefit which Peale derived from his career as a soldier was a collection of portraits of the heroes of the Revolution. He had two sittings from General George Washington, one in 1776 and another in 1779. He also painted a number of officers, including Generals Rochambeau, de Kalb, Lafayette, and von Steuben (cat. no. 92). Their portraits, which Peale exhibited in his exhibition room in Philadelphia, attracted public attention and additional sitters.

After the war, Peale continued his portrait work. The years 1781 to 1794 were the most successful and productive of his career. The foremost painter in Philadelphia, he was busy enough to support his growing family, which comprised seven children by 1794. His patrons included the wealthiest and most important men in the United States. In 1783 Peale received a commission from Robert Morris for a number of portraits of himself, his family, and his friend Gouverneur Morris. Peale painted Gouverneur and Robert Morris (cat. no. 93) to commemorate their partnership in the Office of Finance during the Revolution. As in George Washington at Princeton, the composition of Gouverneur and Robert Morris contains details which describe the subjects' roles in the Revolution. In this case, their financial support of the young nation is suggested in the inscription to which Robert Morris points, "A plan of Finance to restore public credit & for establishing a national Bank." The restrained color and simple forms of the composition reflect the conservative tastes of both sitters.

By the year of the constitutional convention, Charles Willson Peale's portrait painting had led him into a new venture, a museum of natural history and American portraiture. The idea for the museum grew out of the success of his exhibition room, to which he had begun charging admission in 1781. The success of his portrait exhibitions, which included von Steuben and the portraits of other military heroes, induced him to add more portraits and other attractions, including moving picture shows and specimens of natural history. By 1786 his gallery had developed into a museum of American portraiture and natural history and had become his chief obsession.

As Peale's interest in natural history grew, the portraits he painted for his museum began to take on new meanings for him. To him the purpose of the museum portrait was to represent man as "the head of the Linnean order" of nature. For his museum, therefore, he wanted to collect the best human as well as the best animal specimens. Peale considered the best human specimens to be "the persons who have been highly distinguished in their exertions in the late glorious revolution,"[3] with George Washington heading the list. The portrait of Washington which Peale painted in 1787 (cat. no. 95) was his effort to preserve the features of the great man. In Peale's mind, the Washington, the Franklin (cat. no. 94), and the rest of the museum portraits were like the preserved birds and animals which stood below them in the gallery in that they illustrated the perfection of the order of nature.

To preserve his human specimens in portraits, Peale felt he had to achieve as close a likeness as possible. Therefore, he began to render even the smallest details of his sitter's features with great fidelity. He also devised a special format for the museum portraits, which set off the likeness and minimized distracting details. The portraits show the sitter's head and shoulders only, usually against a plain background, enclosed in a gilt oval mat and rectangular frame. The entire interest is focused on the likeness to the exclusion of all detail but military insignia.

The emphasis on the details of a sitter's appearance which characterized Peale's museum portraits is also evident in his later commissioned work. Such is the case with his portraits of James Latimer (cat. no. 96) and Sarah Geddes Latimer (cat. no. 97), painted in 1789-90. James Latimer's presidency of Delaware's constitutional ratification convention may have led Peale to take a special interest in his appearance. Both portraits, however, are excellent characterizations of the Latimers because of the attention Peale paid to the minute details of their features and expressions. The simplicity and careful realism of the "Washington, the Franklin, and the Latimer portraits contrast with the style of contemporary English historical portraiture. Peale had developed a portrait style which suited his talents and the tastes of a middle class republic.

Charles Willson Peale's success in Philadelphia had encouraged his brother James to move north after resigning his commission in 1781. A developing painter, James soon found plenty of practice assisting his brother with reproductions of his full-length portraits of Washington. James also made the frames, usually simple black moldings, for his brother's portraits, receiving between one and two pounds for each. The black frames edged with gold leaf on the Latimer portraits may be his work. In this manner, with the addition of a few portrait commissions of his own, he began his career as a painter in Philadelphia. By 1786 Charles Willson Peale had more business than he could accommodate, and he began sharing his patronage with James. James painted miniatures, while Charles Willson painted oil portraits. James's miniature painting was a mixed success; his patronage was unsteady, and there were several other competent miniaturists in Philadelphia. James Peale's miniatures painted before 1790 show how much he relied on the work of Charles Willson Peale. Painted with wiry, short brush strokes on very small ivories, they are entirely in his brother's manner.[4] His oil portraits of this period, some commissions for which are recorded in Charles 'Willson Peale's letter books, were even more dependent on his brother's work. It is likely that some of the portraits attributed to Charles Willson's early Philadelphia period are actually the work of James, who had yet to develop an independent style.

After 1790 portrait painting in Philadelphia became a highly competitive business. As other portraitists moved to Philadelphia, patronage became an increasingly difficult problem for Charles Willson Peale. Not only did he have to encourage his own patrons, but he had to find buyers for James's miniatures. In addition, his two older sons were promising painters and were on the verge of launching their careers. Peale's response to the problem was characteristically businesslike and optimistic. In his own portrait business, he lowered his prices to encourage patrons, kept his painting room full of portraits of eminent men and handsome women, and learned how to paint a likeness quickly while carrying on an animated conversation with his sitter. His reputation as a pleasant, competent, and undemanding portraitist stood him in good stead throughout his career.

Peale planned to retire from portrait painting when his sons were ready to take over his business. In 1790 he began exploring other possible sources of income. His museum was becoming an extremely profitable business, and it offered outlets for his manual skills in the preservation of specimens and the portrayal of great men. Peale also tried his hand at printing, inventing, pamphlet writing, and a variety of other interesting occupations.

After 1790 Peale devoted himself to two projects -- promoting his museum and teaching his children how to paint. He instructed all of his children in drawing. Of the three eldest children, Raphaelle (1774-1825), Rembrandt (1778-1860), and Angelica Kauffman (1775-1853), Angelica displayed the most promise as an artist. Rembrandt labored over his drawings for hours, while Raphaelle was frequently unwilling to practice at all. Rembrandt was the most diligent of the children, appropriating Angelica's drawing book for his own use and helping his father and uncle make picture frames.[5] In the face of such competition, Angelica soon stopped drawing, and she never painted. Rembrandt, however, began to paint in oils in 1791, at the age of thirteen, and his precocity may have inspired his father to plan an art academy for Philadelphia that year. Charles Willson Peale's effort to promote his son's education failed when other Philadelphia artists and patrons did not respond to his proposal. A European education for Rembrandt was also considered. However, the uncertain political relationships between England, France, and the United States made travel abroad difficult. Therefore, the Peale children remained in Philadelphia and received their education in art from their father.

As Peale soon realized, he could not offer his children the kind of training he had received in London. He had no examples of the old masters to show them, no history painting, no genre, no landscape paintings, nor did he have facilities for life study or for drawing from the antique. Consequently, Rembrandt and Raphaelle received very limited educations, which were founded chiefly on Charles Willson's portrait and miniature work. They practiced painting still lifes, self-portraits, and portraits of members of the family. After a while Charles Willson Peale set them to copying the portraits in the museum. In spite of his sons' amateurish training, Peale had great plans for their success. In 1794 he announced his retirement from portrait painting and recommended his sons to the public in his stead. Sharing their patronage as Charles Willson and James had, Raphaelle painted miniatures while Rembrandt devoted himself to portraiture.

The establishment of Philadelphia as the capital city of the United States in 1794 carried with it the promise of increased patronage for the city's artists. Unfortunately for Raphaelle and Rembrandt, however, along with the nation's diplomats, statesmen, and intellectuals, came Gilbert Stuart. The younger Peales suddenly had to compete with an older artist of international reputation, whose fluid, elegant style of portraiture was well beyond their capabilities.

Charles Willson Peale offered all the aid to his sons that he could. In an effort to improve their training, he organized an art academy called the Columbianum. To Peale, the most important aspect of the organization was its school. He donated some casts so that students could draw from the antique. However, the only regular member of the antique class was Rembrandt Peale. Rembrandt was also a member of the ill-fated life class, which met only once.

The Peales also hoped that the Columbianum exhibition would attract patrons for their work. As might be expected, the family made a strong showing at the 1795 exhibition. Charles Willson Peale exhibited The Staircase Group (1795; Philadelphia Museum of Art), and James sent a small conversation piece, probably The Artist and His Family (cat. no. 105). Both works were intended to be virtuoso displays of their talents -- Charles Willson's in the area of trompe l'oeil realism and James's in miniature portraiture. Raphaelle sent several portraits but expressed his own preferences by including trompe l'oeil paintings as well. Rembrandt was represented by portraits.

The Columbianum did not last long enough to establish Rembrandt and Raphaelle with Philadelphia patrons. Unable to compete with the brilliant Stuart, their next alternative was flight from the city. Just before they left, Charles Willson Peale was able to persuade President Washington to give his sons some sittings. A life portrait of 'Washington hanging in Rembrandt's painting room might attract some patrons. Rembrandt's portrait of the President (1795; Historical Society of Pennsylvania), showing him as a gloomy, tired old man, was not the happiest of images, especially when compared to the "Lansdowne" and the "Athenaeum" portraits which Gilbert Stuart was painting that year. Almost before the portrait was dry, Rembrandt and Raphaelle packed it and about twenty-five replicas of museum portraits and moved to Charleston, South Carolina. Exhibited in the town hall, their gallery of national heroes enjoyed great success. Rembrandt sold ten replicas of his Washington. A year later the brothers moved on to Baltimore, where Rembrandt was commissioned in 1798 to paint a portrait of William Raborg (cat. no. 74), a local merchant. The Raborg portrait shows Rembrandt employing the S-shaped pose favored by his father. He was, however, beginning to develop his own approach to the depiction of skin tones and flesh, painting them with a softness not found in Charles 'Willson's work.

The brothers' partnership broke up in 1797, when Raphaelle returned to Philadelphia to marry and to work in his father's museum. Rembrandt returned to Philadelphia in 1799, perhaps emboldened by some success in Baltimore, only to meet with the same disappointing "lack of encouragement for his art." Although his painting had improved, it still lacked the grace and sophistication which made Stuart's work so popular. Rembrandt made some tentative attempts at imitating his rival's style, but the results were stiff and awkward.

Charles Willson Peale was the only member of the family unaffected by Stuart's success. More or less retired from commissioned portrait painting, he derived his income from his immensely profitable museum. He painted only to please a friend, to add another hero to his gallery, or to experiment with a new technique. As he did not have to seek patronage, he was not compelled to alter his style or to travel. As much of his work as possible was diverted to James, Rembrandt, or Raphaelle. James Peale does seem to have absorbed some of Stuart's influence early in the nineteenth century. Securely established in the miniature business, James was also painting some portraits in oil and the latter demonstrate his familiarity with Stuart's work. His undated Self-Portrait (cat. no. 106), probably painted between 1800 and 1805, adopts the head-and-bust three-quarter view of Stuart's Dr. William Shippen, Jr. (c. 1798; Collection of the Philadelphia College of Physicians), which James copied for Peale's Museum.[6] James's portrait of his wife Mary Claypoole Peale (c.1800-1805; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) seems to be a humbler version of Mrs. George Plumstead (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), painted by Stuart in 1800. James's adoption of the red curtain and marble column for the background of this and several other portraits of the period suggests that he was imitating Stuart, who used the device frequently.

After 1800 the Peales responded to the competition from other artists by diversifying their occupations and their painting. Every member of the family from Charles Willson Peale to his youngest son, Titian Ramsay II, explored different sources of income or different kinds of painting after 1800. Various members of the family became museum entrepreneurs, natural historians, soldiers, businessmen, writers, inventors, and explorers, as well as painters. They were frequently employed in several kinds of work simultaneously. While Charles Willison and James Peale had painted oil portraits and miniatures almost exclusively before 1800, after 1800 the Peale family artists were producing history paintings, allegories, still-life paintings, trompe l'oeil paintings, landscapes, lithographs, and book illustrations.

Another Peale family project was the exhumation and exhibition of the bones of a mastodon. The prospect of an entire skeleton of an extinct elephant for the museum drew Charles Willson and Rembrandt to New York in 1801. After buying the rights to excavate and designing a pump to empty water from the site, Charles Willson Peale supervised the operation with the aid of his son. As the skeleton of the beast emerged from the ground, Rembrandt suggested that once it had been assembled, he would take it to London and Paris for exhibition. He argued that not only would he make a great deal of money for the museum, but he would also be able to study with the masters of portraiture of both cities. The family agreed, and Rembrandt and Rubens sailed for England in 1802 on what proved to be an abortive expedition.

The skeleton was received without enthusiasm in London. Moreover, Benjamin West had just been expelled from the Royal Academy and was unable to help Rembrandt enter the school. Rembrandt and several other students hired their own models and did some drawing from life, but his study was neither long enough nor intense enough to have any effect on his work. The prospects of war with France made a trip to Paris impossible. In the fall of 1803 the two brothers and the giant skeleton returned to Philadelphia.

Back in Philadelphia, Raphaelle made money for the first time in his life by taking silhouettes at the museum with a new machine called the physiognotrace. In 1803 he toured the South with this machine, cutting thousands of silhouettes and painting a few miniatures as well. But, when Raphaelle returned to Philadelphia, he found that several competitive silhouette cutters had taken all of his business. He was forced to return to portrait and miniature painting, which he disliked, and to find consolation in drink

In 1800 the national capital was moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and in 1803 Gilbert Stuart followed his patrons south to the new city. The next two years showed a slow but progressive rise in the family's fortunes, although the preceding frustrating decade had left its mark on Rembrandt and Raphaelle. Charles Willson Peale's interest in painting revived enough for him to plan a trip to Washington to update his collection of portraits of the great men. He took Rembrandt along to help, hoping that new examples of his work would attract patronage:

Especially as the very small degree of attention bestowed on painting in this City has rather discouraged him, and almost induced him to relinquish his profession if from anything else he could obtain competency.[7]

Rembrandt painted several portraits in Washington and seems to have collaborated with his father on others, including a portrait of Gilbert Stuart (1805; New York Historical Society). Both Peales visited Gilbert Stuart's painting room; Rembrandt, who had not seen it before, was impressed. In a letter to Stuart of 1806 Rembrandt said that he was studying by lamplight as Sir Joshua Reynolds recommended in the Discourses, and he added:

It seems to favor the manner which I have heard you say principally distinguishes you from Mr. West, in producing the effects of projection, instead of depending, merely, on the accuracy of the outline."[8]

If the letter shows that Rembrandt was attempting to develop his own portrait style in emulation of Reynolds and Stuart rather than of West and Charles Willson Peale, he was also beginning to follow the practical advice of the latter artists by building a painting room and charging low prices for his work. He was beginning to get commissions, and his confidence rose rapidly, although he did not yet have enough business to charge full prices.

The founding of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1805 seemed to promise more opportunities for recognition for the Peales. Charles Willson and Rembrandt had followed the development of a similar institution in New York City in 1802 and were instrumental in the organization of its Philadelphia counterpart. During the first six years of its existence, however, the Academy did little for the city's artists. The Peales' requests for life schools and frequent exhibitions were ignored. Still, the artists associated with the Academy were allowed to select objects for the Academy to purchase and to arrange infrequent exhibitions. In 1807, Charles Willson Peale hung the Academy's first exhibition,[9] which consisted of paintings from the collection of Robert Fulton.

The biggest disappointment for the Peales was the Academy's failure to establish a life school. Charles Willson Peale wished both Rembrandt and Raphaelle to study from the model, as they were deficient in knowledge of the human figure. Their ignorance was so great that a performance of a war dance by a tribe of scantily dressed Osage Indians at Philadelphia's only theatre was a revelation to Rembrandt. He later wrote for The Crayon:

I was much struck by their manly proportions-each chief being above six feet high, realizing an aggregate of the most celebrated examples of Greek sculpture. I observed many beautiful articulations which I had imagined were licenses taken by the old sculptors, especially the hips, the firm pectoral and uninflated abdominal muscles.[10]

The fundamental ignorance of human anatomy and of the nude human figure shared by every member of the Peale family except Charles Willson probably explains why he was the only member of the family ever to paint original full-length portraits.

As Rembrandt began to succeed with Philadelphia patrons, his growing ambition encouraged him to try his luck abroad once again. In 1808 he sailed for Paris to paint ten museum portraits of the leading men of France. He had been able to raise his prices from thirty to fifty dollars a head, and he planned to live in France for a year on the five hundred dollars he would earn. He proposed to study portraiture with France's most eminent painters, only to find to his surprise that in France the great artists were not portrait painters.[11] However, he was welcomed by Napoleon's minister of culture, Dominique Vivant Denon, who took him to visit the studios of David and Gerard. Rembrandt was not nearly so impressed with these French neoclassicists as he was with the work of Peter Paul Rubens, which he saw in the Luxembourg Palace.

Rembrandt's work was well received in France. He reported to his father that his portrait had been praised as being in the manner of Van Dyke, although that style does not seem particularly evident in the portraits of David (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), Houdon (cat. no. 114), Denon (cat. no. 113), and other luminaries, which he completed in Paris. What Rembrandt obviously did learn in France was high finishing for portraits. After his return from Paris, Rembrandt gave all of his portraits an extremely high finish.

Even with this new technique, however, Rembrandt was not successful. His declining popularity as a portrait painter after 1815 can be blamed on his slowness. The grimly resolute expressions of his male sitters and the wilting poses of his females can be ascribed to the long sittings he required to complete his work. In addition, Rembrandt had developed a bizarre concept of ideal portraiture while abroad. On the voyage home he wrote to his father:

I have studied their [the old masters'] beauties, noticed their defects, methodized their systems & have formed an Union of their various excellencies in the Picture of My Brain, which is still to be my model, assisted by Nature -- which I believe is sufficiently beautiful in America.[12]

Entirely different from his father's, which was based on likeness and the minute depiction of reality, Rembrandt's ideal was a generalized image which he could alter to create a resemblance to his sitter. This "Picture of My Brain" influenced all of Rembrandt's work after 1808, but it is nowhere more evident than in his National Portrait and Standard Likeness of George Washington (1823) also known as "The Porthole Portrait." Conceived in Rembrandt's active imagination, it is a composite of the Stuart, Peale, and Trumbull portraits of Washington. The final result was intended to portray Rembrandt's concept, rather than memory, of Washington's appearance. The Pennsylvania Academy's replica of this portrait (cat. no. 115), six feet high and four and one-half feet wide, also demonstrates that for Rembrandt a monumental painting was basically a very large museum portrait.

Rembrandt's constant experiments with coloring systems and new media arose from his interest in portraying imaginary ideals. With encaustic painting, a technique he learned in France, he thought that he had found the perfect solution for the problem of depicting skin tones and textures. He described the discovery to his father with his usual enthusiasm:

My tints surpass the fairest complection and equal what the imagination can conceive -- Beauty shall come to me for immortality, for its texture flows from my Pencil as I trace its forms -- to create flesh is no longer difficult -- to modify it with color, light or shadow no longer tedious -- consequently my principal attention may be to character and beauty, etc.[13]

Rembrandt's interest in flesh tints, "beauty," and "character" sometimes interfered with his ability to take likenesses. Even Charles Willson Peale could not defend his son's systems when a Mrs. Bottner rejected her portrait because it did not look like her, because it added twenty years to her age, and because the tints around her mouth looked more like a beard than like shadows.[14]

For a while, Rembrandt influenced his father's painting style. Charles Willson Peale, who resumed portrait painting in 1808, experimented with several of Rembrandt's coloring systems. However, he was much more cautious and frequently was the first to notice defects in the systems. Never did he abandon imitation of nature for a system, although a system would doubtless have made his late work, hampered by weak eyesight, much easier. Charles Willson Peale's later work combines Rembrandt's warmer coloring and high finish with his own careful study of appearances and with his superior knowledge of the human figure and of composition. His Lamplight Portrait (cat. no. 101) of his brother James and his monumental self-portrait The Artist in His Museum (cat. no. 100) show that Charles Willson Peale was still the most capable and versatile artist in the family. In 1823 he painted a self-portrait[15] as ambitious as The Artist in His Museum, combining the trompe l'oeil effect of The Staircase Group with the narrative detail of the former. The success of the painting, done in his old manner, finally led him to repudiate Rembrandt's advice altogether. In 1823 he wrote to his son:

Truth is better than a high finish. The Italians say give me a true outline & you may fill it up with turd ... I am of the opinion that the portrait painter must dispatch his work as quick as possible, by aiming at good character, truth in drawing & coloring -- effect at a proper distance if not so highly finished may be acceptable with the multitude.[16]

Throughout his career Charles Willson Peale supplied a viable high standard of achievement for the other painters in his family. Under his influence, the works of James, Raphaelle, and Rembrandt exhibited the formal characteristics which defined the family style. Attention to physical details, persistent use of static neoclassical poses, restrained brushwork, and lack of interest in surface textures establish their portraits in the Peale tradition and differentiate them from the work of other portraitists in Philadelphia during the nineteenth century. In spite of their adherence to a family tradition, however, James, Raphaelle, and Rembrandt shared one stylistic trait not characteristic of Charles Willson Peale's work. They painted a portrait by applying the sitter's features to a schematic or generalized shape in order to achieve a likeness. In Rembrandt's case the basic form was "The Picture of My Brain," and later, in his instruction manual Graphics, he suggested an oval for primary shape. Both James and Raphaelle constructed heads from simple geometric forms. This construction technique was less sophisticated than Charles Willson Peale's, which was based on his knowledge of the human form and anatomy. Although Rembrandt's techniques were complicated, his labors extreme, and his results highly finished, he, like James and Raphaelle, was working in a stylistic tradition harking back to that of the eighteenth-century limners.

After 1810 neither Charles Willson nor Rembrandt received good prices for their portraits, and their subsequent experiments with history painting should be seen as efforts to raise money and to attract patrons. The Peales did not regard history painting as the highest level of artistic achievement, but rather as a public spectacle. During the 1780s the rise of the museum portrait to the position history painting usually occupied in Sir Joshua Reynolds's hierarchy of artistic genres had relegated history painting to the status of the five-legged cow Peale's Museum had acquired in its early years. Both could be enjoyed for the multiplicity and complexity of their forms and for their moral and philosophical connotations. Both attracted the admission-paying public.

Rembrandt was inspired to begin history painting after Adolph Ulrich Wertmuller's popular and financial success with the exhibition of his Danae (17R7; Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) in Philadelphia in 1811. That year Rembrandt painted a nude subject of his own, The Dream of Love (location unknown), and also The Roman Daughter (Private Collection).[17] Both became major attractions in the museum he opened in Baltimore in 1814. His major effort, The Court of Death (1820; Detroit Institute of Arts), was inspired by the monumental Biblical canvases by West, exhibited at the Academy. The Court of Death earned nine thousand dollars for its creator in 1821.

Charles Willson Peale's efforts in the genre were less spectacular and less pretentious, but often more interesting. He selected his subjects as much for their appropriateness to his interests as for their potential as exhibition pieces. Noah and His Ark (cat. no. 99), painted for the museum, was copied from a work by the immigrant painter of animals and landscapes, Charles Catton, Jr. Peale copied the painting because it embodied all of his ideas about the harmony of art, religion, and nature in one charming, minutely detailed whole.

James and Raphaelle also developed proficiency in other artistic genres in order to augment their incomes from portrait and miniature painting. Unlike Charles Willson and Rembrandt, they painted still lifes. There were several sources for their compositions, including the still lifes which John Singleton Copley used in his American portraits and which Charles Willson Peale imitated. However, the most important prototypes for the Peale still lifes were the seventeenth-century Dutch paintings then popular with Philadelphia collectors. Rembrandt Peale claimed the credit for introducing Raphaelle to the genre, having bought some Dutch still lifes in 1803.[18]

James and Raphaelle were painting still lifes by 1805, but they produced most of their work in this genre after 1811, the year of the Pennsylvania Academy's first annual exhibition. That exhibition seems to have introduced Raphaelle and his father to the aesthetic and financial possibilities of still-life painting. Of the three hundred paintings displayed, over sixty were by Dutch or Flemish artists; most were still lifes and all were owned by private collectors. Charles Willson Peale was soon urging Raphaelle to apply himself to still-life painting. Raphaelle sent three still lifes to the annual exhibition in 1812, twelve in 1813, and seventeen in 1814. He offered still lifes for sale every year at the Academy until he died in 1825.

For Raphaelle at least, a still-life painting was more than another source of income. Alcoholic, unhappily married, and burdened with debts, he created in his still-life painting the order and calm which he could not find in his life. Unlike the rest of his family, he was interested in the formal problems of composition and spatial organization. Even his simplest compositions are rigorously ordered and carefully executed. Raphaelle was perhaps the only Peale who did not feel that the best painting was the one most elaborately composed or cluttered with detail. He preferred to limit his subject matter and to work and rework his compositions on a series of small wooden panels. Apples and Fox Grapes (cat. no. 111) and Fox Grapes and Peaches (cat. no. 112) seem to have been part of such a series. Such careful preparations on a small scale undoubtedly contributed to the precise mastery of space and composition which Raphaelle displayed in his larger still lifes.

James Peale did not begin to paint still lifes seriously until about 1820, and he did not exhibit them at the Academy until 1824. James did not share Raphaelle's rigorously formal approach to still-life painting. Preferring to heap a variety of fruits or vegetables on a table or in a basket, he achieved a rich rather than restrained composition. He was also not above duplicating successful works; two versions of Still Life No.2 (cat. no. 108) exist, of which the Pennsylvania Academy's is probably the original.[19] In their warm coloring and abundance of objects, James's still lifes reflect his happier, less austere outlook on life. Like Raphaelle, he suffered from gout, but he had a happy family life. As his health failed, his daughters helped him with his work and later contributed to his support with the proceeds from their own painting.

Titian Peale II (1799-1885), Charles Willson Peale's youngest son, developed another facet of his family's artistic interests. A natural historian, explorer, and collector, he became a skilled draughtsman and scientific illustrator. He accompanied several important exploring expeditions as an artist and illustrator, going with Long's Expedition up the Missouri River in 1819 and with the Wilkes Expedition to the South Seas from 1839 to 1842. The Long Expedition supplied Titian with much of the material for his later work. He brought skins of specimens back to Philadelphia and mounted them for the museum with his father's help.

Charles Willson Peale painted one of Titian's specimens, a turkey, in the foreground of The Artist in His Museum. After it was mounted and installed in the museum, the turkey served as the model for Titian's illustration of the species in Charles L. Bonaparte's American Ornithology (cat. no. 122) .[20] There is a similar history behind the animals in the drawings which Titian exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1822. Missouri Bears (cat. no. 119) shows specimens from the Long Expedition mounted in a museum habitat group.

Illustration was an art form which exactly suited Titian's training and tastes. He had received all of his artistic training from his father and was, therefore, a careful observer and a good copyist. These were the skills which a good scientific illustrator needed; fortunately for Titian, problems of coloring and composition were irrelevant. His limitations became readily apparent in the more ambitious oil paintings he created between 1850 and 1875. Nostalgic representation of his memories of his western expeditions, they are crudely composed and executed.

After 1811, all of the Peale painters-Charles Willson, James, Raphaelle, Rembrandt, and Titian-relied on the Pennsylvania Academy's annual exhibitions for exposure of their work to prospective patrons. Charles Willson Peale also used the exhibitions to evaluate his own work as well. He would carry a recently completed portrait to the Academy, stand it next to a painting he admired, and compare the two for several minutes. Then he would return home with his painting and improve it. James and Raphaelle used the annuals as indicators of public tastes and as a market place for their pictures. Their still-life paintings and James's interest in romantic landscape painting after 1820 reflect the public tastes expressed in the exhibitions. Titian probably sent his drawings to the 1822 annual in order to enhance his reputation as an illustrator.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts proved most useful to two of James's daughters, who followed in his footsteps and became portrait and miniature painters. Anna Claypoole Peale (1791-1878), a miniature and still-life painter, exhibited at the Academy every year from 1811 to 1842. Her sister, Sarah Miriam Peale (1800-1885), sent portraits to the exhibitions from 1817 to 1831. In 1824 both were elected Pennsylvania Academicians, the first women to receive that honor. Anna Claypoole (cat. no. 107) was a miniaturist, working in her father's style (cat. no. 90). Sarah Miriam painted portraits, learning the craft by assisting her father with the details of his occasional commissions. Later, she studied with her cousin Rembrandt in Baltimore, acquiring some of his methods of coloring and finish. Another daughter of James, Margaretta Angelica Peale (1795-1882), was also a painter, although she shared none of the professional ambitions of her sisters. Margaretta's still lifes (cat. no. 109), imitations or copies of James's and Raphaelle's work, are painted in a relatively primitive style.

Not all of Charles Willson Peale's family became professional artists, although most of them painted at some point in their lives. Rubens Peale (1784-l865), one of Charles Willson's sons, was a museum manager and businessman until his retirement, when he devoted his time to copying or imitating still lifes by his uncle James and his brother Raphaelle. Rubens's daughter, Mary Jane Peale (1827-1902), was a follower of Rembrandt Peale. The subjects of her portraits have the wooden expressions characteristic of Rembrandt's later work. Mary Jane lacked Rembrandt's technical skills, however, and her original portraits verge on the primitive. She was the only Peale ever to enroll at the Pennsylvania Academy as a student, studying there in 1879 as a student of Christian Schussele and Thomas Eakins.[21]

After the death of Charles Willson Peale in 1827 his family gradually withdrew from the increasingly competitive world of contemporary American art, while involving themselves somewhat more actively in the running of the nation's developing art academies. Rembrandt Peale was both a Pennsylvania Academician and an Academy director. He was especially influential in that institution's belated founding of an art school in 1856. In addition, he briefly served as the president of the American Academy of Arts and as a member of the National Academy of Design. His brother Franklin (1795-1870) also served as director of the Pennsylvania Academy, although he was one of the few members of the Peale family who did not paint.

The shift in the Peale family style, from original and stylish portraiture to simplistic imitation, resulted from a number of factors. Due to the failure of early Philadelphia art schools and the political disputes which made travel abroad difficult, the young Peales never received a thorough grounding in the basic principles of academic art, which might have enabled them to equal or surpass Charles Willson Peale. Competition from other artists forestalled their establishment as independent painters and also impeded their stylistic development beyond the limit of Charles Willson's achievements. The very closeness of the family and the reliance of its members on each other, and on Charles Willson especially, also tended to discourage development outside of the family traditions. After Charles Willson Peale's death, the important characteristics of his tradition changed. Instead of emulating the hard work, ingenuity, and persistence which characterized Charles Willson Peale's involvement in every venture, his family continued the superficial aspects of his tradition, painting museum-type portraits, running museums, and joining art academies. Most importantly, many of them worked in his style or copied his paintings without trying to improve their skills or to surpass his achievements. But, regardless of questions of aesthetic merit or technical ability, the work of the Peale family represents one of the young nation's most interesting and expressive artistic traditions.

1 Reynolds delivered his first discourse to the Royal Academy in 1769, the year Peale left London, Peale does not seem to have been familiar with the discourses until well after they had been published in England,
2 Charles Willson Peale to John Beale Bordley, November 1772, CWP Letterbook I. Charles Willson Peale's letterbooks are located in the collection of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.
3 Charles Willson Peale, "Address to the visitors and directors of the Philadelphia Museum," n.d, Collection of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.
4 See Jean Lambert Brockaway, "The Miniatures of James Peale," Antiques, 22 (October 1932), and E. Grosvenor Paine, "Miniaturists in the Peale Family," The Peale Family (exhibition catalogue, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1967).
5 Rembrandt Peale, "Reminiscences: The Painter's Eyes," The Crayon, 3 (June 1856), 163-65,
6 James's replica is now in the collection of the Independence National Historical Park. James copied the pose and features exactly from Stuart's portrait, while remaining uninfluenced by his style.
7 Charles Willson Peale to Thomas Jefferson, December 18, 1804, CWP Letterbook V.
8 Rembrandt Peale to Gilbert Stuart, March 24, 1806, published in The Boston Transcript and reprinted in "Sketchings: Domestic Art Gossip, Boston," The Crayon, 7 (January 1860), 24-25. Rembrandt's reference to Sir Joshua Reynolds indicates that he had read the Discourses. In the Fourteenth Discourse ("Gainsborough"), Reynolds advises painting by candlelight. Stuart's influence is apparent in at least one portrait Rembrandt completed in Washington, Albert Gallatine (1805; Collection of the Independence National Historical Park).
9 Charles Willson Peale sketched the installation in a letter to Robert Fulton, November 15, 1807, CWP Letterbook VIII. The hills for the preparation of the galleries, for whitewash, carpentry, etc., authorized by Peale, are in the PAFA Archives.
10 Rembrandt Peale, "Reminiscences: Inventions -- Odds and Ends," The Crayon, 3 (April 1856), 101-2,
11 Charles Willson Peale to Angelica Robinson, September 8, 1808, CWP Letterbook IX.
12 Charles Willson Peale to Angelica Robinson, October 27, 1808, quoting a letter from Rembrandt Peale, September 13, 1808, CWP Letterbook IX,
13 Charles Willson Peale to Angelica Robinson, August 26, 1810, quoting a letter from Rembrandt Peale, April 1810, CWP Letterbook XI
14 Charles Willson Peale to Rembrandt Peale, December 17, 1820, CWP Letterbook XVI.
15 Charles Coleman Sellers, Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol, 42, pt. 1 (Philadelphia, 1952), cat. no, 637, p. 162.
16 Charles Willson to Rembrandt Peale, August 23, 1823, CWP Letterbook XVII,
17 Rembrandt Peale, "Reminiscences: Adolph Ulric Wertmuller." The Crayon, 2 (October 3, 1855), 207.
18 Charles Coleman Sellers, "Rembrandt Peale, Instigator," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 39 (July 1955); Rembrandt Peale, "Reminiscences: The Painter's Eyes," The Crayon, 3 (June 1856). 163-65.
19 Unlike the still life in the San Diego Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy's is signed and dated, suggesting that it is the original.
20 Jessie Poesch, Titian Ramsay Peale, 1799·1885, and His Journals of the Wilkes Expedition, Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 52 (Philadelphia, 1961), pp. 46-47.
21 Mary Jane Peale's student card is in the PAFA Archives. She is the only Peale recorded as a student, although Rembrandt joined the life class as a professional artist near the end of his life.

About the author

Louise Lippincott wrote the above essay as part of the catalogue, In This Academy: The Pennsylvanian Academy of the Fine Arts 1805 ­ 1976 published in 1976. Currently Dr. Lippincott is the Chief Curator and Curator of Fine Arts at Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


Resource Library editor's note

The above exhibition catalogue text was reprinted in Resource Library on July 24, 2008, with permission of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The permission was granted to TFAO on June 10, 2008. Dr. Lippincott's essay pertains to In This Academy: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1805 - 1976, which was on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1976 as a special Bicentennial exhibition.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Barbara Katus, Rights and Reproduction Manager of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

Resource Library readers may also enjoy:

and from the Web


Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Resource Library.

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2008 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.