Of the three most talented painters born in the British colonies of North America, Charles Willson Peale, Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley, only Peale remained in America after the Revolution. Born in 1741 in Queen Anne's County, Maryland, and trained as a saddler, he became a painter in the 1760's by studying the work of other artists, including John Hesselius and Copley, whom he met in Boston in 1765. Several merchants and lawyers, including John Beale Bordley, financed a two year trip in 1767-1769 to London, where Peale studied with West. He steeped himself in English painting theory when he was in London, and corresponded with West for many years after his return to America.
Peale became a portrait painter in Maryland, Virginia and in Philadelphia, where he moved with his family in 1776. During and after the Revolution Peale combined his artistic career with Whig politics. He served with the Pennsylvania militia in battles against the British, carrying his miniature case to paint portraits of fellow officers. In 1779 the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania commissioned him to paint the full-length of George Washington that commemorated the victories at Princeton and Trenton, the first official portrait of Washington (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts). Peale's idea of a Gallery of Great Men led him to paint head and shoulder "museum" portraits; the first were completed by 1782. Peale was a friend of many intellectual and political leaders and eventually painted images of many of the heroes of the war and the new republic, including Washington, Thomas Jefferson, David Rittenhouse, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Benjamin Franklin (Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia). He trained his brother James, his nephew Charles Peale Polk, and his sons Raphaelle, Rembrandt and Rubens Peale as painters, and was a founder of the Columbianum, the first American artists' society, which held its only public exhibition in Philadelphia in 1795.
By that time Peale had established a museum of natural history in Philadelphia. He continued to paint portraits, although he turned the business of miniature painting over to James Peale and increasingly concentrated on natural history and the museum. Its collections, which he moved to Independence Hall in 1802, were primarily scientific and included the mastodon bones that he recovered from their New York burial place in 1801. Although he was a founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1805, he painted fewer and fewer portraits, primarily of close friends and family. One of his last works was his full-length self-portrait, The Artist in his Museum (1822; The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts).
Peale's diaries and letters reveal his lifelong energy and curiosity. His painting style was a combination of close observation, invention, and a personal interest in his sitters' lives. His role as a painter and teacher was equal to his interests in natural science and invention. His Whig political views placed him at the center of the formation of the new American republic, a role unlike that of his contemporaries Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley. Peale died in Philadelphia in 1827. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Miller, Lillian B., Sidney Hart, Toby A. Appel, and David C. Ward, eds. The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family. 3 vols. to date. New Haven and London, 1983-1991.
Richardson, Edgar P., Brooke Hindle, and Lillian B. Miller. Charles Willson Peale and His World. New York, 1983.
Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 112.