Little is known about James Peale because his career was overshadowed by that of his famous older brother, Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Born in 1749 in Chestertown, Maryland, the son of an English immigrant schoolteacher, he became a journeyman in Charles's Annapolis saddelry in 1762, and several years later he began an apprenticeship as a cabinet maker. After his older brother returned from London in 1769 as a fully trained artist, James became his assistant and pupil. During the American Revolution he served as a first lieutenant in General Smallwood's Maryland regiment in the Continental Army, and retired at the rank of captain in 1779. James settled in Philadelphia and lived in his brother's household until 1782, when he married Mary Claypoole, the sister of the engraver and portraitist James Claypoole Jr.
By the middle 1780s he had established himself as an accomplished painter of miniature portraits, a field that Charles ceded to him by a special agreement in 1786. A surviving sketchbook indicates that by the late 1780s he became interested in landscape subjects; his early examples of this genre are topographical and reveal familiarity with British artistic conventions. When his eyesight weakened around 1810 he abandoned miniature painting and began to specialize in large portraits and still lifes. James exhibited still lifes at the Pennsylvania Academy between 1824 and 1830. Late in life he resumed his interest in landscape painting, and these works reveal a heightened romanticism. Three of his daughters were noted artists. He died in 1831.
Until the early 1790s James's oeuvre bore the unmistakable imprint of Charles, but thereafter he developed a more fluent, painterly, and colorful style. James is now recognized as the most skilled miniature painter of his era, one of the founders of the American still life tradition, and an important pioneer in landscape painting prior to the emergence of the Hudson River School. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue
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"James Peale." In Four Generations of Commissions. The Peale Collection of the Maryland Historical Society. Baltimore, 1975: 31.
Gerdts, William H. Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life 1801-1939. Exh. cat. Columbia, Missouri, 1981: 60-62.
Simmons, Linda Crocker. "James Peale: Out of the Shadows." In Miller, Lillian B., ed. The Peale Family: Creation of a Legacy, 1770-1870. Exh. cat. Trust for Museum Exhibitions and the National Portrait Gallery. Washington, D.C., 1996.
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: 43.