- Historic Sites
‘The ingenious Captain Peale” sired a dynasty of painters and started America’s first great museum.
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
Everything that Peale undertook began in a burst of optimism. Whether it was his apple-paring machine or his polygraph (a device for duplicating letters), his portable steam bath or his new museum, he was certain that it would revolutionize some aspect of life and expound the unity of science, art and morality, and the glory of God and Nature. “As this is an age of discovery,” he wrote, “every experiment that brings to light the properties of any natural substance helps to expand the mind, and make man better, more virtuous, and liberal.” While his expectations often outran the final result, as they will for exuberant men, the success of his great museum was a solid achievement.
Peale’s own family was not the least extraordinary of his creations, and amused his own contemporaries, especially when he dug into a dictionary of names of classic painters and gave his sons names like Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian and Vandyke, artists he knew only by reputation. Female artists were even harder to unearth, and on two of his little girls he inflicted the jaw-breaking names of Angelica Kaufmann and Sophonisba Angusciola. When his attention shifted to Science from Art, he named two more boys Linnaeus and Franklin, until the second of his three wives put her foot down and demanded a plain Elizabeth.
Altogether, over forty years, the virile Charles Willson Peale sired seventeen children, not counting an eighteenth who was lost in the childbed death of his second wife. The household included not only his own children but those of his brother and sister, together with various transients, black, white and American Indian. He took in, as an art student, the orphan (and deaf-mute) son of General Hugh Mercer; he helped a struggling seventeen-year-old artist with mechanical ideas, named Robert Fulton. There were also brothers and sisters and other relatives, not to mention live bears, birds and snakes, an elk and a five-legged cow with two tails, a gift to the museum which provided apparently normal dairy products for the household.
It was a house full of paints and brushes, the clanking of homemade machinery driving away flies, and of music, lor nearly everyone sang and played some instrument. Peale could manufacture a fiddle or a xylophone or whatever was required. The place reeked of chemical experiment. Fumes of arsenic, used as a preservative in taxidermy, rose from the kitchen; gunpowder was ;ilso manufactured in it; there was a patent “improved fireplace,” a perpetual oven and a great deal of work a loot in leather, glass and porcelain, inasmuch as the head of the family not only made shoes and eyeglasses but also, to the embarrassment of his more socially ambitious children, liked to manufacture false teeth, of a quite modern design, for himself and his friends, and thought seriously in his later years of turning dentist (when he was not contemplating setting up as a bridge builder, or lighting Philadelphia as he had his museum with eas he manufactured).
This jack-of-all-trades cherished throughout life a number of unorthodox ideas, some of them since justified in the course of history. His medical opinions, for example, were quite progressive, and, if for no other reason than that he kept most of the bloodletting doctors of the day away from his house, they seemed effective. He ate sparingly, avoided liquor and tobacco (although he made wine on his farm and could not cure his third wife of dipping snuff) and set great store by exercise, proper posture and a few bowel purgatives which he liked to press on friends. To all his children he was an indulgent, impartial father, modern in his ideas, adamant against the rod, eager to share in their games, striving to interest them in drawing, nature and what he called “the mechanic arts.” He entertained a high opinion, for the times, of the capabilities of women, and saw no reason why his daughters and nieces should not ride the velocipede he devised or why they should not become painters. In the end, several of them succeeded as artists and one, Sarah Miriam Peale, hung out her shingle as the first American woman painter with a full-scale professional career.
Some of his notions, however, have still not won any general acceptance. He believed that the normal span of a man’s life, providing he lived properly and wore loose-fitting garments, should be 200 years (based on the theory that the natural period of maturity in animals is ten times the length of the immature period), a figure he later revised downward to 112 and seemed, as he reached 86, full of skill and power, well on the road to achieving. Sharing with the fieriest Whigs a deep faith in the natural rights and equality of all men, he carried the reasoning a step further to the conclusion that there was no such thing as “inborn” talent. Any intelligent man who applied himself could learn, for example, to be an artist, he announced, and, as if to prove his point, set out to teach all his children and nearly all his other relatives the art of painting.