Peales abound in Philadelphia show Artists: In an exhibit of more than 150 works, the city's Museum of Art looks at the Maryland-born portraitist and members of his remarkable, talented family.

November 10, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

You have to like Charles Willson Peale. You just can't help it.

Surely, there has never been anyone more thoroughly American -- a self-made man who dreamed the American dream and then went out and made it happen.

Born in Maryland the son of a convicted felon, he was trained as a saddler, married above himself socially and economically, became a painter by accident, networked assiduously, moved to where the action was, and worked his way up the ladder of success. He became a patriot in his country's cause, a painter of presidents, a museum owner, a noted educator and the founder of an extraordinary dynasty of artists.

That's the story that gives life to "The Peale Family: Creation of a Legacy 1770-1870," the thoroughly attractive new exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There are more than 150 pictures in the show, by no fewer than 10 members of the Peale dynasty.

Though the story it tells is based in Philadelphia, there are a number of Baltimore connections, including our own Peale Museum, to pique the interest of visitors from Maryland. But the central and captivating presence is Charles Willson himself, founder of Those Painting Peales and, not incidentally. the best artist of them all.

No one is more conscious of his appeal than the organizers of this exhibit, who confront the viewer at the outset with a painting that's out of place chronologically but one of the most dramatic works in the show. "The Artist in His Museum" (1822), painted when Peale was over 80, presents a full-length, life-size self-portrait of Peale lifting the curtain on the museum he created in Philadelphia. The bones in the foreground and the cases of stuffed animals behind, under rows of portraits, attest to its function as both a natural history and art museum. They attest as well to Peale's multifaceted interests as painter, collector, naturalist and entrepreneur. "This Is My Life," this painting says.

And quite a life it was. He was born in Queen Anne's County in 1741. His father, Charles Peale, had been convicted of forgery in England -- a capital crime in those days -- but he was deported to the Colonies rather than executed. At 13, Charles Willson was apprenticed to a saddler. At 20, he opened his own saddlery in Annapolis, and a month later married Rachel Brewer, of a family of merchants and planters. He didn't waste time.

He apparently had no notion of becoming an artist until, on a trip to Norfolk, he saw some terrible paintings and decided he could do better. His initial training was a series of three lessons from the portraitist John Hesselius. Soon after, when business debts forced him to flee Annapolis and he ended up in Boston, he made the acquaintance of John Singleton Copley, the greatest American artist of the time, who gave him some help.

In 1767, financed by a group of wealthy Marylanders, Peale went to London to study with the American expatriate painter Benjamin West. Two years later, he came back to Annapolis, but soon it wasn't big enough for him. He set his sights on Philadelphia. By 1770, he had gained a commission for five portraits from Philadelphian John Cadwalader and his wife, the former Elizabeth Lloyd of Maryland. In September of 1770, he wrote to Cadwalader, "I have a great desire to settle there, and at leisure Times be a Visitor in Maryland to do the Business I have here."

By 1776, his desire was fulfilled, and he quickly became a captain in the Philadelphia militia and saw action at Trenton and Princeton. He had painted Washington as early as 1772, and executed numerous portraits thereafter, perhaps the most famous of which is the full-length "Washington after the Battle of Princeton" (1779-1782).

Maryland pictures

After the Revolution, Peale continued to work in both Philadelphia and Maryland. One of his best pictures in this show is of Marylanders "Benjamin and Eleanor Ridgely Laming" (1788), and another is of Baltimore merchant "William Smith and His Grandson" (1788), with Smith's estate, Eutaw, in the background.

By the 1790s, Peale was avidly pursuing interests in natural history and museums. He opened the Philadelphia Museum, devoted to art, natural history and education. In 1801, he led an expedition to upstate New York to exhume the bones of prehistoric mammoths, subsequently shown in the museum. His painting of this feat, "Exhumation of the Mastodon" (1805-1808), is on loan to the Philadelphia exhibit from Baltimore's Peale Museum.

The other consuming passion of Peale's life was art education for his extended family. In 1771, he began a painting not completed until 1809, "The Peale Family," a group portrait of 10 figures in which Peale appears as the heir to renaissance painter Raphael and the instructor of other members of the family. His brother James, shown in the painting, became an artist as did James' daughters Anna Claypoole, Margaretta and Sarah Miriam.

Artists' names

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