Charles Willson Peale

Self-Portrait of the Artists in His Museum.  Peale, C.W., 1822.  Held at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

The story of Charles Willson (C.W.) Peale's life is one fit for a novel. Born to dandy named Charles Peale who was exiled from England to Maryland for embezzling from the Post Office, the younger Peale was named after a rich uncle, Wilson Peale, whose fortune the elder Charles expected to inherit-and never did. C.W. Peale was born to Charles Peale and his wife, Margaret Matthews on April 15, 1741. His father was an in-demand school-teacher in Annapolis, Maryland, where few knew of his criminal past. Unfortunately, the elder Peale died when C.W. was only eight years old. Leaving the family destitute, Mrs. Peale moved to Chesapeake to earn money as a dressmaker, and sent her son to a charity school. He left five years later to become the apprentice to a saddler where he proved to have an uncanny ability to excel at any task to which he applied himself. He would later be referred to as "the ingenious Mr. Peale."

During his time as an apprentice, Peale purchased a watch and a mare to project the appearance of wealth and stature. His father had instilled the importance of appearances in him before his death. He also taught himself how to mend watches. Peale earned an early release from his apprenticeship due to his skills and hard work to his master, setting out to open his own saddler enterprise at only 20 years old. In order to do so, he had to borrow money from his former master. Business was slow however, and when the master came to collect his debt, Peale lacked the money to repay him. He decided to also offer services as an upholsterer and a clock and watch maker in order to pay back the saddler, but had to borrow more money from other creditors in order to enter those ventures. He eventually repaid his debt to the saddler, and began painting miniature portraits in order to raise the funds needed to repay his debts on his upholstery and clock making supplies. It had never occurred to Peale that painting was a difficult task to excel at, for his natural skills provided the talent that he needed to find work. He eventually noticed that his skills were far inferior to those of his contemporary artists, and set out looking for an instructor. He studied under John Hesselius, another Philadelphia portrait painter. Hesselius is now regarded as one of the least talented painters at the time, but Peale did not know any different.

In 1764, he became involved in the radical movement that would lead to the Revolutionary War twelve years later. The radicals managed to defeat the Court Party in elections for the legislature for the first time that year. Enraged, wealthy supporters of the Court Party demanded to be repaid for their loans, which included money loaned to C.W. Peale. Unable to repay the debts and unwilling to go to debtors prison, Peale fled Annapolis and moved in with his sister and brother-in-law in Virginia. He left his wife and a young child behind. Realizing that his variety of crafts and interests led to his financial difficulties, Peale decided at that time to specialize as an artist only. Over the next years, he gained a reputation for his art an his sympathy with the revolutionary movement. Eager to bring renown to the area in Virginia where he was staying, the Governor sent Peale to go and study art under a fellow American with a studio in London, Benjamin West, in 1767. Peale gladly accepted the scholarship, but discovered that he missed his wife and disliked life in the bustling city. His patriotic passions were also heightened during those years, and he resolved to dedicate himself to helping to secure America's freedom. He returned to America in 1769. He was reunited with his wife at that time, and seven years later, the couple moved to Philadelphia.

In August, 1776, Peale joined the militia, and served in the Continental Army until the end of the war. He earned the rank of Captain in short time, and was well loved by his men as he strove to provide for them comforts and necessities like warm shoes, clothes, and food. When he returned to Philadelphia, he was elected president of the Constitutional Society, which supported a unicameral legislature filled with popularly elected delegates. He soon discovered that he disliked politics, and returned to concentrating on his art.

Peale held his first studio show in the studio that he had built in his home in 1785. A few years later, his wife died, and unsure how to care for his many children himself, Peale immediately searched for a new wife. He married Elizabeth de Peyster less than a year after Rachel's death, and the new couple had several more children together. Overall, Peale had 17 children, 11 of whom survived to adulthood. He named all of his children after famous artists, until 1794, when he began to name them after famous scientists. The shift in the themes of the naming of his children reflected his changing interests from art to the sciences. This new obsession accompanied by dedicated study of the natural sciences led to the establishment of Peale's Museum. The museum would eventually house thousands of species of preserved plants and animals, as well as the artists' rendition of many flora and fauna. The museum became the premier natural history museum in North America at its time. However, the museum made very little money, and Peale returned to painting portraits to support his large family.

Over the years, he had developed a method of preserving animals which involved the use of arsenic. The arsenic made his health deteriorate, and Peale moved away from the city in an attempt to recover. In 1810, C.W. Peale left the museum in the care of his son, Rembrandt, and bought a farm in Germantown. Shortly thereafter, his second wife died, and Peale married a third time. He died on February 22, 1827 in his bed in his home in Germantown, Maryland.

Information from:

Flexner, James Thomas. America's Old Masters. New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1980. pp. 171-241.