Charles Peale: Portrait Of An American Artist

April 14, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

When Charles Willson Peale was in his mid-80s, he travele from Philadelphia to New York to propose marriage to what would have been his fourth wife, because he wanted someone to take care of him for the last quarter century of his life. No, there's nothing wrong with that last sentence. He thought he would live to be 112.

He probably thought that since he had accomplished enough for several lifetimes he would be permitted to live them.

Born 250 years ago tomorrow in Queen Anne's County on the Eastern Shore, and currently the subject of celebrations in Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia, Peale was one of the most astounding phenomena in the history of American art.

He painted portraits, landscapes, still lifes, history paintings. He initiated the portrait which contained more than one person in America and painted more life portraits of Washington (seven) than any other artist. He engraved and sculpted. He opened and ran the first real museum in America. He was an inventor. He exhumed the bones of a prehistoric animal that had significant scientific implications. And he founded a dynasty of artists that lasted for several generations.

In fact, says Peale scholar Lillian Miller, it was precisely the fact that Peale did so many things that eclipsed his reputation for more than a century after he died. "He was such a varied individual that he was dismissed as a jack-of-all-trades. He had a pleasant personality and it was mostly his personality that was discussed by historians rather than his paintings. When they were discussed at all, it was his Washington sittings. But he was overshadowed by [John Singleton] Copley and [Gilbert] Stuart, who were considered more sophisticated by historians and critics."

Since World War II, however, and particularly in the last 25 years, Peale's portraits have been increasingly shown and he has been increasingly studied, as Ms. Miller's current schedule shows. The editor of the Peale Family Papers at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, she participated yesterday in a conference at the portrait gallery on Peale and other American "Old Masters," including Benjamin West, Copley, Stuart and John Trumbull. Tomorrow, she will be speaking in Philadelphia; and today she will speak at Baltimore's Peale Museum, which is having an afternoon celebration of the birthday.

The subject of all these tributes did not have a particularly promising beginning, Ms. Miller said in a telephone interview last week. Born of a father who had been exiled from England for embezzlement, he grew up in Chestertown, where his father taught school, and was apprenticed to a saddler.

"He bought himself out of the apprenticeship because he felt it was a very servile position and very much resented the dominance of his master." Seeing portraits on a trip to Norfolk, Va., "he said to himself, 'I could do better than that,' and subsequently in Philadelphia he bought a book on how to paint and some materials."

Not long after, he fled to Boston to avoid debtor's prison, and there he saw copies of old masters by John Smibert. "They were very important influences on many artists," Ms. Miller said. Moreover, he saw Copley paint. Before that, "painting was something to add to other craft jobs to earn a living. Watching Copley atwork, he became much more involved in the idea of the artist as a professional. And Copley was painting the aristocracy of Boston, which impressed him."

Back in Maryland, his debts paid off out of his wife's inheritance, he impressed his patron John Beale Bordley, who raised a purse to send him to London to study with Benjamin West. There for 2 1/2 years, "he learned everything there was to be learned about art at the time, and came back a trained and professional artist."

Moving to Philadelphia just before the American Revolution, he served during the war. "He went to Valley Forge with Washington. He took along his miniature kit, and painted miniatures of many officers involved in the Revolution. Some are the only images we have of the people," said Ms. Miller, who pointed out what many do not know: with Copley, Stuart and Trumbull all out of the country, Peale "was the only major painter working in this country during the Revolution."

In 1779, he painted a full-length portrait of Washington at the battle of Princeton. "It was copied by many artists and engravers," and was, Miller said, the best-known image of Washington until a Stuart portrait took its place about 15 years later.

"Peale painted more life portraits of Washington than any other artist: in 1772, when Washington was a colonel in the British army; in 1776, 1777, 1779, 1783, 1787, when Washington was sitting at the Constitutional Convention; and 1795, when he painted Washington as President."

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