- Historic Sites
‘The ingenious Captain Peale” sired a dynasty of painters and started America’s first great museum.
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
Outrageous and improbable as these theories are, Peale nearly succeeded in proving both of them. He was never so fit, so eupeptic or so skilled with the brush as in his seventies and eighties. That Peale, who was born in 1741, did not live until 1941 (or at least to 1853, on the revised estimate) indicates, as the old man would probably contend, no fault in the theory, but simply foolishness on his part—he was the first to admit his own shortcomings, to apologize for false accusations, taking newspaper advertisements to make sure his amends reached everyone. In this case, Peale would have admitted, he died because he overstrained his heart, carrying out a feat that would have killed most men half his age. In the middle of the winter of 1827, cold and exhausted, he carried a trunk on his back for a whole mile along a wood path just to save a little time. He was 80 at the time, and out courting a prospective fourth wife. Even then, he survived for several months. Death found the old experimenter studying his own failing pulse.
As for the other theory, it is a matter of record that because of Peale’s determination most of the family he instructed in art became good amateurs and at least six of them skilled professionals.
His son Rembrandt, the most successful, was a master of portraiture who traveled extensively abroad and sold endless copies of the only Washington he ever painted from life, as a seventeen-year-old boy, in 1795. He taught the new techniques of Jacques Louis David and the European neo-classicists to his father, then in his seventies, and revolutionized the supple old man’s work. With his brother Raphuelle he ran his own “Peale’s Museum” in Haltimore, showing spare exhibits donated by Peale, Sr., and his later years were lull of honors. He succeeded John Trumbull as president ol the American Academy of the Fine Arts; he helped found the National Academy of Design.
Another son, Rubens, managed the museum for years, and for a time commuted between the original at Philadelphia and others of his own at New York and Baltimore. Ever since Dr. Franklin, visiting one day, had rather sententiously printed the word “Perserverantia” on a card and given it to the boy Rubens, he had been the Poor Richard, the orderly, businesslike one, but in his later years he demonstrated great skill at still life.
Raphaelle, the black sheep who eventually drank himself to death, was the family wit as well as its problem. The perfection of his still life work and his deceptions rank him in many eyes as the greatest technical virtuoso of the family, but he could not please customers. Few of the wealthy wanted his portraits, and he took all kinds of work, for what it would bring, in a long unsuccessful battle to make a living. He advertised his “still life” work with the jesting indication that he stood ready to record anything from fruit to the features of the dear departed. As a ventriloquist he was the life of the party and could make fish or fowl utter piteous cries when the carving knife approached. But he had to be carried home.
Irritated by a nagging wife, he contrived masterful trompe l’oeils solely to get even with her—a false evidence of his dog’s misbehavior on a little piece of tin, which could be removed from the rug with a whisk of the hand when her inevitable angry lecture was over; and what appeared to be a nude picture of another woman, covered with a towel from prying eyes, and all arranged to humiliate Mrs. Peale when she tried to tear away the towel and found it a part of the painting.
And this was not the end of the talents the elder Peale stirred to life, for there was his placid, devoted younger brother James, who lived with him for years and, from a helper, graduated into a fine artist in his own right, particularly noted for his miniatures. And there were James’s son, a fine water colorist, and his three painting daughters: Margaretta Angelica, whose fruit pieces are still exhibited; Sarah Miriam, the portraitist ( q.v. ); and Anna Claypoole Peale, the most famous of the girls, who traveled the country with her father and uncle as a miniaturist. Anna and Charles Willson would often undertake the same famous subject together, for instance the Jackson which appears on page 44. Leaving aside the achievements of the inventors and naturalists Peale sired and taught, this is a not inconsiderable total product to proceed from one man’s insistence. If there is no such thing as born ability, Peale’s is quite a tour de force .