- Historic Sites
‘The ingenious Captain Peale” sired a dynasty of painters and started America’s first great museum.
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
Although West, an American like himself, was a friend of George III, indeed the object of that monarch’s devoted patronage, the patriotic Peale stood stolidly in the London streets, his hat conspicuously undoffed as the king passed. For two years he studied hard under the kindly hand of West, and passed from his primitive colonial methods to a more refined style. He visited Dr. Franklin and was cordially received, but the circumstances were typical of both parties. Coming unannounced, and feeling overawed, he walked softly up to the great man’s work room, only to find him with a girl on his lap, “busily engaged.” Stepping back unnoticed, Peale made a quick pencil sketch of the scene, stole back a few paces, and then stamped noisily up the corridor again.
In 1769, Peale returned to Maryland, clutching a bundle of painter’s supplies and a huge, stilted canvas for his patrons, showing William Pitt in Roman robes orating in the West manner, but the artist himself was still arrayed in the tattered colonial clothes he had worn when he left. He would buy nothing in England; it was his patriotic gesture
Peale was only one of a great roster of distinguished American painters to study with West, whom many regarded as the greatest artist of the age. Trumbull, Stuart, Copley and others (including Rembrandt Peale) also sat at his feet. But the young Marylander was the first to return home, and the one who remained most American in his ways. From now on he was to make his living in art, traveling the countryside in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania, painting the gentry in a polished realistic style few of them had ever seen before. In 1776, at the beginning of the war, Peale took his growing family to live permanently in Philadelphia, capital of Revolutionary America. He might have grown fairly rich as an artist to the aristocracy had it not been for military service, and then for politics.
Caught up in the excitement of the Revolution, Peale and his friends David Rittenhouse and Nathaniel Ramsay were soon making gunpowder at home, and Peale devised a kind of telescopic sight which unfortunately blacked his eye with its recoil the first time he fired the gun on which it was mounted. He joined the militia, and the company quickly elected him lieutenant, and later captain. And when Washington, after losing the New York campaign, commenced to fall back through New Jersey, and Philadelphia filled with alarm at the approach of’ Cornwallis, Peale raised a company of 81 and took to the field. His brother James and Ramsay (his brother-in-law) were in the regular Continental Army; Peale was distressed to meet them, haggard and worn in defeat. He took a vigorous part in the campaigns around Trenton and Princeton and made the Delaware Crossing; he was on hand for the next campaign when the British, rallying from their defeats in New Jersey, approached and took Philadelphia from the south.
By modern standards, by any standards, Peale was a peculiar soldier. Discipline was alien to his nature. His main concern always seemed to be his men, and no body of troops ever had a commander who took their well-being more to heart. He did the foraging, and a lot of the cooking. Once, when everyone was exhausted from several days’ march, Peale set out to hunt for food while his men collapsed in some straw. When after great exertions he had a stew ready, he was dismayed to find that the militiamen were too tired to get up and eat it. He doctored them and, when their boots wore out, procured hides and made them all moccasins by hand with cozy linings of fur. When there was nothing else to do, he painted miniatures of the high officers; he had conceived the idea that he should record, for later exhibition, the great men of the Revolution.
Washington seems to have crossed his path frequently, and once invited him to dinner. But in riding about searching for clean linen to wear at the occasion, Peale got so far away from headquarters that he failed to show up.
Peale was brave enough and served under fire, but he was not cut to the military measure. Once he came upon some retreating militia and, brandishing his sword as heroes do in romances, tried to rally them. But no one paid any attention and Peale, having shouted himself hoarse, prudently joined the retreat. A family man at heart, he worried constantly about Rachel, his mother, his children and the rest of the brood, and he would put the war aside for the period necessary to go transport them all to some new safe retreat. He came and went constantly while the army lay at Morristown and Valley Forge, and added men like Lafayette, Greene and St. Clair to his portrait gallery.
This was the bulk of Peale’s military service, for he had a new consuming interest: politics. As a friend of Rittenhouse and Thomas Paine, both radical Whigs, he took part in the bitter internecine political strife of Philadelphia. He served briefly in the legislature. He was chairman of committees. While the British occupied Philadelphia, the Tories made their sympathies boldly clear and after their departure, therefore, many estates were forfeited. Peale was put in charge of these transactions, a job which he managed with honesty and sympathy. With his name high in the councils of social revolution, however, he only succeeded in making enemies of his wealthy portrait clientele.