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Rembrandt Peale

American, 1778 - 1860

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Rembrandt Peale, born in 1778 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, was the son of Philadelphia artist and museum proprietor Charles Willson Peale, and his first wife Rachel Brewer. He and his siblings, Rubens, Raphaelle, Titian Ramsay, Sophonisba Angusciola, and Angelica Kauffmann, were born during the most productive years of their father's painting career and were named after European artists. Rembrandt was a precocious artist, painting his first work, a self-portrait, at the age of thirteen. He continued to work as a portrait and history painter for almost seventy years, producing more than a thousand works. His most original works date from the first three decades of the nineteenth century.

Although Philadelphia was his home town, Rembrandt worked at various times in most of the other major eastern United States cities, including Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington and Charleston. As a young artist he benefitted from his father's friendships and patronage in Federal America. He studied the work of contemporary painters, including Gilbert Stuart and Robert Edge Pine, as well as paintings by European artists that could be found in private collections. His father made it possible for him to paint life portraits of George Washington (1795) and Thomas Jefferson (1800, 1805). Charles Willson's ambitions also made him a museum director at times. In 1795-1798, for example, he went to Charleston, Baltimore, and New York City to paint portraits and exhibit sixty copies of his father's museum portraits, painted by himself and Raphaelle. In Baltimore in 1796-98 he managed the first Peale family museum outside of Philadelphia. In 1798-99 he worked as an itinerant artist in Maryland. In 1801 he assisted his father in unearthing the bones of prehistoric mammals in Newburgh, New York, and the following year he and Rubens took the skeleton assembled from these remains to England for exhibition. From 1813 to 1822 he established and managed the Peale Museum in Baltimore.

More than was true for his father, Rembrandt benefitted as an artist from extended periods spent in European capitals. He studied briefly at the Royal Academy while in London in 1802-1803. He travelled to France in 1808, and again in 1809-1810, painting portraits of French scientists, artists and writers in Paris for his father's collection of portraits. His third European stay was in Italy, in 1828-1830, where he copied old master paintings for American collectors. On his last European trip, in 1832-1833, he returned to England. As a result, especially of the early trips, Rembrandt's style of painting changed, when he was still a young artist, from the tight, closely observed eighteenth century manner of his father, to a style strongly influenced by French neoclassicism and the work of Jacques-Louis David. His first attempt at a grand manner history painting was The Roman Daughter (1811, National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.). Even more ambitious was his enormous, multifigured painting of Court of Death (1820, The Detroit Institute of Arts), whose theme of individual choice in creating a happy and rational life expressed the tenets of the new, controversial religion of Unitarianism. Next he turned his attention to creating a heroic portrait of Washington. His result was the painting known from its inscription as the "Patriae Pater" portrait - Washington as Father of his Country (1824, United States Congress). Later, in the 1840s, Peale returned to painting replicas of his portrait of Washington, capitalizing on the fact that he was the only living artist who had painted the first President's portrait at life sittings.

While Rembrandt's ambitions and opportunities were very much derived from his father's energy and drive, the results and the context of his work was of his own generation. After his trips to England and Paris, Charles Willson Peale turned to him to learn new techniques for painting. His creation of an idealized portrait of Washington was a response to the nationalistic demands of the 1820s, marking the end of the Revolutionary era. His subject pictures of the 1830s and 1840s reflected the sentiments of the Victorian era. Peale also promoted his theories of art and its role in a democracy by publishing brochures, articles and books. Some, like Description of the Court of Death; an Original Painting by Rembrandt Peale (1820), were written to accompany exhibitions of his work, held in several American cities. Others, including Graphics; A Manual of Drawing and Writing for the Use of Schools and Families (1835) and Introduction to Notes of the Painting Room (1852), were intended as drawing and painting manuals for mechanics and art students. He also wrote reminiscences of his life and family, poems, and accounts of his travels. From 1855 to 1857 he offered a personal history of American art in his "Reminiscences" and "Notes and Queries" published in The Crayon, a popular art periodical. He died in Philadelphia in 1860. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]

Artist Bibliography

Hevner, Carol Eaton. Rembrandt Peale, 1778-1860: A Life in the Arts. (Biographical essay by Lillian B. Miller) Exh. cat. Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1985.
Scheflow, Carrie H. "Rembrandt Peale: A Chronology." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 110, no. 1 (January 1986): 129-180.
Torchia, Robert Wilson, with Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998: 46-48.

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