Thursday, July 9, 2015

Charles Willson Peale

The Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale)
oil on canvas
226 × 100.5 cm   
Philadelphia Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (for more paintings of this artist) (art group of Imaginary-Museum)

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) was an American painter best remembered for his portraits of the leading figures of the American Revolution and as the founder of the first major museum in the United States. In his long life, he painted about 1,100 portraits, including sitters such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. Crisply outlined and firmly modeled, his portraits reflected the Neoclassical style developed in France by Jacques-Louis David. His sons Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian were also painters.

As a young man, he worked as a saddler, watchmaker, and silversmith. His career in art began when he exchanged a saddle for a few painting lessons. In 1766 a group of Maryland patrons sent him to London, where he studied for three years. Upon his return to America, he immediately became the most fashionable portrait painter of the middle colonies. In 1775, he moved to Philadelphia, entered wholeheartedly into the Revolutionary movement, and served with the city militia in the Trenton-Princeton campaign. From 1779 to 1780, he represented the “Furious Whig” party in the Pennsylvania Assembly, an activity that damaged his professional career.

In 1782, he opened a portrait gallery of Revolutionary heroes and in 1786 founded an institution intended for the study of natural law and display of natural history and technological objects. Known as Peale’s Museum (later known as the Philadelphia Museum), it fulfilled his objective to make wide-ranging collections democratically accessible. The museum grew to vast proportions. Located in Independence Hall, the museum was a mixture of Peale’s paintings, curious gadgets, minerals, and stuffed animals. Its most celebrated exhibit was the first complete skeleton of an American mastodon, which was unearthed in 1801 on a New York farm. Peale, who had accompanied the archaeological expedition, chronicled the excavation in his painting. In 1812 the museum was relocated to Baltimore, Maryland, and he relinquished its directorship to his son Rubens. In 1812 Peale wrote “"An Essay to Promote Domestic Happiness,"” a tract that scholars today believe may have influenced many of his portrait compositions, in which family members touch intimately and are posed in a relaxed, informal manner.