- Historic Sites
‘The ingenious Captain Peale” sired a dynasty of painters and started America’s first great museum.
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
The aide-de-camp strode into the painting room and handed a message to General Washington, who was sitting for his portrait, a miniature for Mrs. Washington. “Ah,” he remarked alter a mere glance, “Burgoyne is defeated.” And then, supremely honoring his young friend the artist, that imperturbable man put aside the dispatch for later study and resumed the pose.
Their amusement was still life
Like Burgoyne, Washington was in good hands. The painter, Charles Willson Peale, a slender Marylander with a long nose and a gentle, curious expression, was well-known to him. Peale had taken his likeness at Mount Vernon in 1772, as a colonel of Virginia Militia, and again in July, 1776. He had been his fellow campaigner only recently at Trenton, Princeton and Germantown, a dutiful if not a martial figure who carried both a musket and a palette and who, Washington had noted approvingly while riding by one day, was not above gathering the volunteer company he commanded in a field and cooking them a hot meal, lie lore his public career was over, Washington was to be painted seven times from life by Peale, more times than by any other artist. It was not always an easy job, as the general noted himself. “At first,” he wrote Francis Hopkinson in 1785, “I was as impatient . . . and as restive under the operation as a colt is of the saddle. The next time I submitted very reluctantly, but with less flouncing. Now no dray moves more readily to the thill, than I to the painter’s chair.”
Washington had a graver fault which he failed to mention; he kept going to sleep. But to Peale, however, the man he liked, he presented a lively, smiling countenance, and many modern critics agree that the resulting portraits are the most faithful representations of him ever made. It is on these portraits, somewhat over-shadowed by the less accurate but more popular Washington of Gilbert Stuart—who never saw the great man until 1795, when his mouth was contorted by an ill-fitting set of false teeth—that the dimming reputation of Charles Willson Peale mainly rests today. He is, in the popular memory, another one of those old patriot painters.
In fact Peale was one of the universal men of the Eighteenth Century, a man whose talent and interests ran in a hundred different directions: inventor, mechanic, silversmith, watchmaker, millwright, patriot, soldier, politician and naturalist. His hands could make anything his brain devised, from moving pictures to a new type of bridge. He practiced every branch of the graphic arts—oils, water color, sculpture, etching, mezzotint —and painted most of the heroes of the Revolution from life. He was on friendly, sometimes intimate terms with most of the great figures of his age, with men like Franklin, Lafayette, Benjamin West, Jefferson, Madison and Thomas Paine. If he had done nothing else he would deserve to be remembered for founding America’s first public art gallery and its first museum of natural history. He formed the first society of artists, and led the first American scientific expedition. Although he lived most of his life a few hurried paces ahead of the sheriff, he reared one of the world’s happiest and most accomplished families. Under his instruction, dozens of his children and relatives learned to wield the brush. Painting was the cottage industry, and the Peales produced more artists than the Adams family did statesmen, or the Beechers preachers.
Peale himself, however, entertained a very modest opinion of his own work at the easel, taking the accepted contemporary view that “History” was the proper ambition of the painter. To paint great canvases filled with inspiration and allegory and crowded with generals in dress uniform and Eighteenth Century statesmen in togas, in the manner of West and Trumbull, raised the humble “limner” to the heights of art, and in this field he doubted his ability.
Modest in some ways, Peale also loved to shine, sending notices to the papers every time he launched a fresh project. He could nominate himself for the office of postmaster general of the U.S., explaining to the startled President Washington that this would be a good way of subsidizing the arts and sciences, in the person of himself. He was in every way a likeable friend, however, always bustling and enthusiastic, terrified by the prospect of inactivity, a man who reminds us of Franklin, who respected him, and Jefferson, who so loved and admired him that he sent his grandson to live with the Peales, for his instruction and improvement.
In his ideas, Peale was a disciple of the bubbling Age of Reason, a nominal Anglican who was really a Deist, a soldier with a heart so full of affection for all creatures that he became eventually a complete pacifist, a fiery revolutionary so anxious to keep on friendly terms with his conservative opponents that he at length forswore politics because of the hard feelings they engendered. Having unwittingly helped rouse the mob . in Philadelphia, he would place himself before the object of its wrath and strive to send the rioters home, and provide carriages for fleeing Tory ladies, and try to save the property, and the feelings, of the other side.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
Finally, dismayed by the excesses of the mob and anguished at the loss of his friends, he suffered a kind of mental breakdown that lasted two years, and from which he emerged only as the war was ending. That was the end of Peale the Soldier and Peale the Politician, and his contribution to the victory celebration in 1783 was almost the end of Peale himself, nearly fulfilling the worst fears his wife had felt ever since she watched him first experiment with fire.
It was a regular Peale practice to celebrate great public events, the surrender at Yorktown, the birthday of the Dauphin and the like, by the display of transparent pictures in the windows of their house, lighted from behind and eulogizing the heroes of the hour. When Arnold turned traitor, Peale constructed the float and the two-faced effigy which was hauled through the Philadelphia streets in disgrace. Some years later, when Washington was making his state progress northward, en route to his inaugural, the Peales erected a row of arches under which the mounted hero entered Philadelphia, not the least feature of which was a mechanism designed to drop a laurel wreath on Wash ington’s head as he passed under it. Pretty Angelica Peale, then fifteen, pulled the lanyard and ringed the target. (The family legend is that the great man dismounted and bestowed a courtly kiss on the little girl.)
But to celebrate the end of the Revolution, Peale prepared a masterpiece which did not work so well. The State Assembly commissioned “the ingenious Captain Peale” to set up a temporary arch of triumph over Market Street, the main thoroughfare of Philadelphia; there was to be a fireworks display as well. Peale spent months getting things ready. The arch he built was of classic Roman design, heavily inscribed in Latin, adorned with flimsy oil paper paintings to be illuminated from behind with over a thousand lanterns; they depicted such subjects as Washington in the character of Cincinnatus and Louis XVI of France, the worthy ally. Statues of Justice, Fortitude and other selected virtues crowned the parapet, but there was an empty space in the middle for Peak’s chef-d’oeuvre , a large statue of Peace. Instead, Peace rested on a nearby roof top, and it was planned to have her slide down a rope and into position at a dramatic moment, touching off a display of 700 rockets. Members of the family were stationed all over the arch, and an artillery company stood ready to discharge the rockets. Night fell and a vast crowd gathered. Peale and his son Raphaelle took to the roof, ready to light up Peace and send her on her way.
Suddenly, some bystander, probably drunk, set off a rocket prematurely. It ignited the highly inflammable paintings on the arch and all the fireworks, setting off a holocaust. A number were injured and one man was killed. Peale himself leapt to the arch in an attempt to save the day, but several rockets got entwined in his coat and, exploding inside, set him afire. Jumping to the ground he broke two ribs and, followed at intervals by his dazed male relatives, he staggered home, burned and bruised, into his wife’s arms. He was weeks recovering. The arch, later rebuilt and restaged largely at Peak’s expense, nearly bankrupted him. His political activities had cost him most of his portrait trade.
And thus he turned to something new. For some time the artist had given floor space in his picture gallery to a few old bones, gigantic in size, which had been presented to him as curiosities. One day Ramsay, his blunt brother-in-law, dropped in to see them and gave it as his opinion that, while a few people might like paintings, things like these bones would really bring crowds. Peale agreed enthusiastically.
What began shortly after the Revolution as a picture gallery behind his house at Third and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia, with a few curiosities exhibited here and there, grew into a never-before-equaled collection of birds, animals and reptiles, arranged according to the classical order of Linnaeus, handsomely mounted and stuffed by Peale and his family. Many he had caught himself, with gun and bag. Others were contributed by his friends (Franklin once sent him the corpse of his French angora cat and Washington some dead pheasants; Jefferson shipped him specimens brougnt back by Lewis and Clark’s expedition). That other animal, man (anticipating Darwin, Peak was sure of some relationship with monkeys), was represented not only by Peale’s rows of portraits but by elaborate life-size waxworks of the various races.
Although he had no formal education and never became a scholar, Peale somehow picked up enough to arrange it all with rare skill and taste. The age craved showmanship and freaks, a thirst Barnum was later to satisfy to the damage of science, but Peale took his duties seriously. He placed all his specimens in natural surroundings, part stage set, part painted backdrop; a hundred years ahead of his time, he had invented the “habitat” group. There were, in addition, displays of minerals, of insects, and all branches of natural history; 100,000 items altogether, including the trigger finger of an executed murderer. A live eagle screamed in the rafters; the first complete mastodon skeleton ever assembled stood in a place of honor. Peale, who thought it was a mammoth, had dug it up himself.
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.