Saturday, February 23, 2013

Peale me a Grape-The Story of an American Artist Family

The Peale Family has usually been characterized as a talented family of artists. Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) painted more than one thousand portraits of the elite figures in colonial America and the early republic, in many cases providing us with our only likenesses of these individuals. Two of his seven sons were artists: Raphaelle (1774-1825) and Rembrandt (1778-1860). His brother, James (1749-1831), was a noted miniature painter in Philadelphia. Two of James's daughters, Anna Claypoole (1791-1878) and Sarah Miriam (1800-1885), were among the earliest professional women painters in America. However, labelling the Peales just as artists obscures as much as it reveals about them. Charles Willson Peale, the patriarch of the family, was not only an artist, but a multifaceted man of the American Enlightenment who engaged in society and culture in a wide variety of ways. His papers, as well as his children's, contain materials of a highly diverse nature, reflecting the varied interests and pursuits of the family. Completely edited and published, the material in the Peale Family Papers will add a rich vein to American cultural and social history.

The papers of Charles Willson Peale form the core of the collection. Born in Maryland, the son of a convicted felon who was transported to Britain's North American colonies, Peale was apprenticed at age thirteen to a saddle-maker, a situation he described as "abject servitude." Not successful in this trade, Peale tried his hand at other skills, such as upholstery, metalwork, clock and watch repair, and, almost by chance, portrait painting. Peale displayed initial aptitude as a painter, and in 1767 several wealthy and generous Maryland planters sent him to London to study with Benjamin West. He returned to Maryland in 1769 and rapidly established himself as the pre-eminent painter of the middle colonies. In June 1776 Peale moved his family to Philadelphia, right into the maelstrom of the Revolutionary crisis. Both Charles Willson and his brother James became active Whigs and fought in the American Revolution. Charles Willson became a soldier in the Philadelphia militia, was present during part of the fighting in Trenton, and at the Battle of Princeton; his diary as a militiaman is published in volume 1 of the Selected Papers. James fought in several battles with the Continental Army. Charles Willson also became active in Philadelphia's radical republican organizations and was drawn into Philadelphia's tumultuous Revolutionary politics. After the British army's withdrawal from Philadelphia, he served as an agent for the confiscation of estates and, in 1779, as a representative in the Pennsylvania Assembly. All of Peale's Revolutionary activities are fully documented in volume I of the Selected Papers.

After the Revolution, Peale was never able to regain pre-eminence as an artist. Perhaps it was his insatiable curiosity, his many interests or "hobby horses," as he referred to them, that precluded his focusing in any single area, including portrait painting. However, what was lost for Peale as an artist was more than compensated for in his many other accomplishments and achievements. For the historical editor or biographer, the diversified patterns and rhythms of Peale's life prove to be far more interesting than any single activity.Peale would follow many careers: naturalist and museologist, inventor, agricultural reformer, and even a dentist at the end of his long life. At first, his other activities coexisted with his vocation as an artist, but by the second volume of the Selected Papers, entitled, The Artist as Museum Keeper, 1791-1810, art no longer dominates his papers.

In the mid-1780s Peale established his Philadelphia museum of natural history and art, which in little more than a decade became the most successful institution of its type in early America. In 1794, with his museum absorbing most of his time and energy, Peale formally retired as a professional artist, painting portraits only for relatives, friends, and his museum. In 1801, Peale, with the assistance of the American Philosophical Society and his friend, President Thomas Jefferson, organized an expedition to upstate New York to exhume the bones of an American mastodon, an important event in the history of American science. Assisted by his son Rembrandt, Peale mounted the skeleton in his museum. It was an immediate sensation and became a huge popular attraction and a scientific achievement recognized by both American and European scientists. The mastodon exhibit was a spectacular example of what Peale accomplished with his museum: a synthesis of serious science, popular appeal, and democratic access within the context of a private proprietary institution. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, Peale had increased the museum's collections to more than 100,000 objects, including 269 paintings, 1,894 birds, 250 quadrupeds, 650 fishes, more than 1,000 shells, and 313 books in the library. During these creative years- when Peale was in his forties, fifties and sixties--besides expending his major efforts on his museum, Peale devoted himself to another of his favorite "hobby horses," mechanics and invention. He obtained patents for an innovative bridge design, fireplace improvements, and a portable vapor bath. Peale also coinvented a writing machine called the polygraph, which made copies of letters and documents. While not commercially successful, the polygraph was a remarkably precise instrument and responsible for preserving three important collections. Peale used it to copy all of his letters, and made similar models for two of his friends, the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had previously used a letterpress to make barely legible copies of his correspondence. He purchased one of Peale's polygraphs while serving his first term as President, and used it until his death in 1826, providing grateful historians and editors with clear, identical copies of his letters.

 Latrobe also used the polygraph for his correspondence, with similarly beneficial results for the editors of the Latrobe Papers. The Peale family collections are also rich in their quantity and quality of material on the inner workings of the American family. Soon after his father's early death, Charles Willson Peale assumed the role of family patriarch with great earnestness and determination. His letters and diaries explicitly touch on issues of parenting, gender relations, family structure, and kinship.
Material of this richness and variety has been published in the first four volumes of the Selected Papers, which are largely devoted to Charles Willson Peale. A fifth volume in press will contain Charles Willson Peale's autobiography. Almost one thousand pages in manuscript, when published, Peale's work will compare favorably with Benjamin Franklin's as one of the most important early autobiographies in American letters. The final two volumes of the Selected Papers will be devoted to Peale's children. Rembrandt Peale's papers not only document his work as a portrait painter, but also contain material on his quest for government patronage, his European travels, and his attempt to market a book on penmanship in America's newly established public high schools.
 Rubens Peale's documents are filled with material about his own art and science museums in Baltimore and New York. Titian Ramsay Peale's collection includes his participation in one of the major voyages of exploration and science in nineteenth-century America, the Wilkes expedition. Benjamin Franklin Peale's papers focus on the new tools and machinery of nineteenth-century America and his position as chief coiner of the United States Mint. The letters of Charles Willson Peale's daughter, Sophonisba, valuable both for their information on the Peales and as documents of family life in nineteenth-century America, will also be included. These volumes will not only add a great deal to our knowledge of American art history, but because of their unique cross-disciplinary character, will be extremely valuable to scholars and researchers in cultural and social history.

Charles Willson Peale: An Autobiography

Above left:
The Peale Family (detail)/ Charles Willson Peale/ Oil on canvas, c.1770-1773/ Image courtesy New-York Historical Society, NYC Above:
The Peale Family / Charles Willson Peale/ Oil on canvas, c.1770-1773/ Image courtesy New-York Historical Society, NYC
Anne Catherine Hoof Green/ Charles Willson Peale/ Oil on canvas, c. 1769/ National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Horatio Gates/ James Peale after the c. 1782 oil by Charles Willson Peale/ Oil on canvas c. 1782 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Richard Henry Lee / Charles Willson Peale/ Oil on canvas, replica after 1784 original, c 1795/1805/ National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington/ Rembrandt Peale/ Oil on canvas, porthole, probably 1853/ National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
George Washington/ Rembrandt Peale/ Oil on canvas, porthole, probably 1853/ National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
John Adams / Attributed to Raphaelle Peale/ Silhouette on paper c. 1804/ National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Abigail Smith Adams/ Attributed to Raphaelle Peale/ Silhouette on paper c. 1804/ National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Rubens Peale/ Rembrandt Peale/ Oil on canvas c. 1807/ National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Titian Ramsay Peale II/ Self-portrait/ Photograph, albumen silver print c. 1875/ National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
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