- Historic Sites
‘The ingenious Captain Peale” sired a dynasty of painters and started America’s first great museum.
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
But there was one thing Charles Willson Peale did not know about his heritage: artistic talent did run in the family. His English-born father, Charles Peale, was gifted with the pen, his forte forgery. He was caught at last with considerable sums embezzled in the course of his job at the General Post Office in London, sentenced to hang and then pardoned on condition he emigrate to America. None of this was ever known to the Peales, and the facts were only unearthed in modern times by Peale’s zealous biographer and descendant, Charles Coleman Sellers.
In the new country Peale, Sr., seems to have conducted himself in an exemplary fashion. A gentleman by birth, educated for a time at Cambridge, he taught school among the plantations of Virginia and Maryland, and died when Charles Willson Peale, his eldest son, was nine. Ever after he was remembered with affection, and the son, despite his egalitarian faith, preened himself a little on a background laid among the landed gentry of England, on ephemeral hopes of landed inheritance in Rutlandshire, and on stories of his Huguenot grandmother, who gave him kinship with the great race of Voltaire, Rousseau and Lafayette.
The father’s death in 1750 left Charles Willson Peale’s mother in poverty, with five children to support. She took to needlework for the rich of Annapolis, and reluctantly apprenticed her son to a saddler when he was thirteen years old. The boy spent little time regretting what might have been, however. He applied himself. Prospering, he purchased a cheap watch. It broke and he learned to fix it. He bought a horse and rode into the country near Annapolis where he met, at eighteen, a girl who attracted him, fifteen-year-old Rachel Brewer, and with no honeyed words or preparation of any sort, blurted out a proposal, allowing her one hour to make up her mind. (Throughout life, he never changed this head-on method of courtship; whatever its demerits, it got results.) When she could not speak a word he rushed off in vexation, but he returned and, eventually, when his apprenticeship was over, they were married and he set up, on borrowed money, as a saddler himself. Pressed by his creditors, he took on additional work, making harnesses, working in silver, repairing watches.
One day Peale journeyed to Norfolk for leather supplies and beheld the first paintings he had ever seen. In the unpublished autobiography which he got together from his diaries many years later, written in an archaic third person, he describes the effect of this experience. The paintings were miserable.
“Had they been better, perhaps they would not have led Peale to the idea of attempting anything in that way, but rather have smothered this faint spark of Genius . . . The idea of making Pictures having now taken possession of his mind, as soon as he could he begins to try at a Landscape which was much praised by his companions. Next he began a portrait of himself, with a Clock taken to pieces before him, next his Wife’s portrait, his Brothers and Sisters . . . These beginnings were thought a good deal of, and Peale was applyed to by Captain Maybury to draw his and his Lady’s portraits, and with some intreaty he at last undertook them, and for which he was to receive 10 pounds, and this gave the first idea to Peale that he possibly might do better by painting than with his other trades . . .”
With his usual optimism, Peale at once advertised himself as a sign painter in addition to his other endeavors. He journeyed to Philadelphia to buy paints and paid a timid call on a real artist, whom he found, rather inauspiciously, being hustled off by the sheriff for debt. Back home, he offered “one of his best saddles, with its complete furniture” to the artist John Hesselius if, in return, he might be permitted to watch him at work on a picture. Hesselius was agreeable, and even painted half a face so that Peale could fill in the missing section.
Things did not go well for long with the new family, J. however. Peale’s partner absconded with the cash; then his noisy espousal of the radical side in local politics so irritated his Tory creditors that they descended on him with writs. To avoid imprisonment for debt, Peale fled Annapolis with his wife, and when the sheriff still pursued, he sailed alone in a ship belonging to his brother-in-law to Massachusetts. The exile lasted a year and turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Peale studied for a while with Copley in Boston, and seemed so promising by the time his affairs were put in order and he returned home that a group of eleven wealthy Marylanders, headed by Charles Carroll of Carrollton, raised 81 guineas to send Peale to London to study under the great Benjamin West. Leaving his young wife again, the grateful Peale embarked, in 1766, on a ship which was, to his intense satisfaction, carrying back a cargo of tea which no one had been able to land in the rebellious colonies.