Charles Peale Polk was born in Annapolis, Maryland, on March 17, 1767, the son of Elizabeth Digby Peale and Robert Polk. His mother was the younger sister of the celebrated artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale, and when he was orphaned by the age of ten, Polk went to live in Philadelphia. He was raised there by his uncle and received the same benefits of education and artistic training as his cousins.
Polk's painting career was heavily dependant on his uncle's example, and his earliest dated paintings are copies of portraits by his uncle, which he made at the age of sixteen. By the time he was eighteen the young artist had married and settled in Philadelphia, although he traveled to cities such as Baltimore, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia, to support his large family. His early efforts seem not to have been fruitful; no works from this period have been discovered. An advertisement from 1787 indicates that Polk solicited employment as a house, ship, and sign painter.
By 1790 Polk was selling copies of Peale's so-called "convention" portrait of George Washington. It was upon this model that Polk based his "Princeton" type of Washington portrait, of which he produced at least fifty-seven. In 1791 he moved to Baltimore, where he had considerable success as a portrait painter for about five years. The more than thirty-five portraits he painted on commission constitute the largest group of works by him from any period. He supplemented his income by opening a drawing school in 1793 and 1794, and by starting a dry-goods business in 1795. Within a year these ventures failed and in 1796 the family moved to Frederick County, Maryland. Polk visited the surrounding counties to obtain business, made the acquaintance of James Madison, and in 1799 managed to obtain a sitting with Thomas Jefferson.
As a strong supporter of Madison, Jefferson, and Republican policies, Polk hoped to obtain a government post in the Federal City. He moved his family there in 1801 and in 1802 began working as a clerk-copyist in the Department of the Treasury, where he remained for the next two decades. Although he produced few portraits in oil during these years, he made a number of miniature likenesses through a process called "verre églomisé," which involved scratching a profile into gold leaf adhered to a glass plate, removing the leaf around the desired image, and painting the background black.
With his third wife, the now part-time artist moved to Richmond County, Virginia, in 1820 and took up the life of a gentleman farmer. He died there on 6 May 1822.
Simmons, Linda Crocker. Charles Peale Polk 1767-1822: A Limner and His Likenesses. Exh. cat. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1981.
Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 132-133.