- Historic Sites
‘The ingenious Captain Peale” sired a dynasty of painters and started America’s first great museum.
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
The aide-de-camp strode into the painting room and handed a message to General Washington, who was sitting for his portrait, a miniature for Mrs. Washington. “Ah,” he remarked alter a mere glance, “Burgoyne is defeated.” And then, supremely honoring his young friend the artist, that imperturbable man put aside the dispatch for later study and resumed the pose.
Like Burgoyne, Washington was in good hands. The painter, Charles Willson Peale, a slender Marylander with a long nose and a gentle, curious expression, was well-known to him. Peale had taken his likeness at Mount Vernon in 1772, as a colonel of Virginia Militia, and again in July, 1776. He had been his fellow campaigner only recently at Trenton, Princeton and Germantown, a dutiful if not a martial figure who carried both a musket and a palette and who, Washington had noted approvingly while riding by one day, was not above gathering the volunteer company he commanded in a field and cooking them a hot meal, lie lore his public career was over, Washington was to be painted seven times from life by Peale, more times than by any other artist. It was not always an easy job, as the general noted himself. “At first,” he wrote Francis Hopkinson in 1785, “I was as impatient . . . and as restive under the operation as a colt is of the saddle. The next time I submitted very reluctantly, but with less flouncing. Now no dray moves more readily to the thill, than I to the painter’s chair.”
Washington had a graver fault which he failed to mention; he kept going to sleep. But to Peale, however, the man he liked, he presented a lively, smiling countenance, and many modern critics agree that the resulting portraits are the most faithful representations of him ever made. It is on these portraits, somewhat over-shadowed by the less accurate but more popular Washington of Gilbert Stuart—who never saw the great man until 1795, when his mouth was contorted by an ill-fitting set of false teeth—that the dimming reputation of Charles Willson Peale mainly rests today. He is, in the popular memory, another one of those old patriot painters.
In fact Peale was one of the universal men of the Eighteenth Century, a man whose talent and interests ran in a hundred different directions: inventor, mechanic, silversmith, watchmaker, millwright, patriot, soldier, politician and naturalist. His hands could make anything his brain devised, from moving pictures to a new type of bridge. He practiced every branch of the graphic arts—oils, water color, sculpture, etching, mezzotint —and painted most of the heroes of the Revolution from life. He was on friendly, sometimes intimate terms with most of the great figures of his age, with men like Franklin, Lafayette, Benjamin West, Jefferson, Madison and Thomas Paine. If he had done nothing else he would deserve to be remembered for founding America’s first public art gallery and its first museum of natural history. He formed the first society of artists, and led the first American scientific expedition. Although he lived most of his life a few hurried paces ahead of the sheriff, he reared one of the world’s happiest and most accomplished families. Under his instruction, dozens of his children and relatives learned to wield the brush. Painting was the cottage industry, and the Peales produced more artists than the Adams family did statesmen, or the Beechers preachers.
Peale himself, however, entertained a very modest opinion of his own work at the easel, taking the accepted contemporary view that “History” was the proper ambition of the painter. To paint great canvases filled with inspiration and allegory and crowded with generals in dress uniform and Eighteenth Century statesmen in togas, in the manner of West and Trumbull, raised the humble “limner” to the heights of art, and in this field he doubted his ability.
Modest in some ways, Peale also loved to shine, sending notices to the papers every time he launched a fresh project. He could nominate himself for the office of postmaster general of the U.S., explaining to the startled President Washington that this would be a good way of subsidizing the arts and sciences, in the person of himself. He was in every way a likeable friend, however, always bustling and enthusiastic, terrified by the prospect of inactivity, a man who reminds us of Franklin, who respected him, and Jefferson, who so loved and admired him that he sent his grandson to live with the Peales, for his instruction and improvement.
In his ideas, Peale was a disciple of the bubbling Age of Reason, a nominal Anglican who was really a Deist, a soldier with a heart so full of affection for all creatures that he became eventually a complete pacifist, a fiery revolutionary so anxious to keep on friendly terms with his conservative opponents that he at length forswore politics because of the hard feelings they engendered. Having unwittingly helped rouse the mob . in Philadelphia, he would place himself before the object of its wrath and strive to send the rioters home, and provide carriages for fleeing Tory ladies, and try to save the property, and the feelings, of the other side.