- Historic Sites
‘The ingenious Captain Peale” sired a dynasty of painters and started America’s first great museum.
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
As the museum grew, it moved to Philosophical Hall and finally into the second storey of Independence Hall, which cost Peale $400 a year rent but lent a quasi-official air to the enterprise, pleasing the artist who vainly dreamed of the day when it would become a great government institution, destined to last forever. It was a lively, bustling place, with a daughter playing a big organ, his sons lecturing, and occasional exhibits of such strange things as “moving pictures,” an elaborate animated mecnanical device or reale s. Anticipating Hollywood by some hundred years, Peale had contrived a group of moving stage sets, complete with music and sound effects. Night fell over Market Street; Satan’s Palace, as described by Milton, gave off a fiery pageantry; the Bonhomme Richard approached the Serapis and took her captive. For this last production, wooden waves moved mechanically in the foreground while transparent moving curtains passed “clouds” over the scene. Holes appeared in the sails and, as night fell, the American ship sank and the victors sailed off in their prize. Mrs. Peale took tickets.
There was an air of fun and excitement which one never finds in the respectable hush of modern museums. Once a dinner was given inside the huge skeleton of the mastodon and toasts drunk to peace, progress, etc., Peale, a teetotaler, abstaining.
Entering the museum, one saw the proprietor in the far distance, peering at an exhibit, only to have him suddenly pass by from another direction. The Peale in the distance was a waxwork. On the wall appeared a “catalogue for the use of the room,” but, reaching for it, one barked one’s knuckles on the wall, for it was a trompe l’oeil painted by Raphaelle Peale.
In one corner a Negro slave named Moses Williams busily turned out silhouettes for sixpence each, using a machine, “the physiognotrace,” constructed by Mr. Peale. His industry could be traced to a threat of which he lived in dread. Peale hated slavery and freed those few he had inherited as soon as they could support themselves. But Moses had been a difficult case and so Peale had warned him, if he didn’t make good at this, he would be set free anyway, ready or not. No one ever seemed eager to leave the old man’s household and so, in his struggle to avoid freedom, Moses grew wealthy, bought a house in Philadelphia and married Peak’s white cook.
Unaccustomed as they were to solvency, the Peaks basked for years in comparative wealth as the museum prospered. Peale, stunned at first by Rachel’s death in 1790, went courting again the next year, married a New Yorker named Betsy de Peyster and added to his family. He supported the improvident Raphaelle, and sent Rembrandt and Rubens abroad. He spent huge sums in buying and exhuming not one mastodon, but two. Widowed again in 1804, he presently married his third wife, the Quaker Hannah Moore. Peale loved, in fact required, the companionship of women. This time, however, he acquired not only a soft and gentle wife but her domineering sister. For this houseful about 1809 he bought a country place he called Farm Persevere, and later Belfield.
Like his idols, Cincinnatus and Washington, Peale wanted to retire to the land and cultivate the virtues as well as the products of the simple life. But, like his friend Jefferson, with whom he kept up a warm and steady correspondence about crops and families, he was determined to make agriculture scientific. Machinery sprouted all over the farm. There was a corn planter, and a device, in primitive gimbals, for keeping milk cans upright in the wagon. And there was a mill on his stream, run by his younger sons with, alas, indifferent results.
Eventually, in his seventies and eighties, an old man only by chronology, Peale returned to Philadelphia, his museum and his first love, painting. He sat down and completed all the paintings he had left unfinished, his brush lingering a little as he lovingly retraced the outlines of young Rachel’s face. Now and then he would find his older work fading, the result of his experiments in grinding his own colors, and he would renew the flesh tones. Impressed by the fine new technique his son Rembrandt had acquired in Napoleonic France, he took lessons from him, and painted some of his best work.
He traveled to Washington with his pretty and skillful nieces, painting celebrities and dining at the White House. Always he seemed to catch his subjects in a moment of lively awareness. And although he still lacked confidence in his ability to paint “history,” he was recording it at every stroke. Widely dispersed among his descendants and in other private hands, his canvases have been gathered for exhibition several times in recent years, and his role as an historian has gained a long-overdue recognition.
Jack-of-all-trades and master of several, Charles Willson Peale was in many respects a boy who never grew up, as several of his contemporaries noted: a pacifist who never lost his love of bright uniforms, an idealist with the manner of a promoter, a moralist who loved a good time. Curious, noisy and upright, he came as close as any man could to embodying the American spirit in all the joy and optimism of its youth.