Artists & Designers

Peale Family (American artists)

The following essay comes from the catalogue for a 1960 exhibition, Famous Families in American Art (Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, October 8- November 20, 1960). The Peale family is noteworthy both for their participation in the first century of American visual arts and for the large number of family members who pursued painting either professionally or as talented hobbyists.

One of America's better known painters, Charles Willson Peale was a man painfully close to genius. A many-sided, versatile man, he exemplifies the probing post-Revolutionary spirit in America. His many interests included the establishment of the first American museum of natural history, the first public art gallery, many inventions including a bridge, several stoves, and a machine for duplicating letters (Jefferson owned at least four of these machines), collecting and mounting all of the specimens for his museum, exhuming the first American mastadon, silversmithing, clock mending, and dentistry. With his son Rubens, he installed gas lights in the Independence Hall museum and made it the first lighted public building in America. Holding to the American belief that man rules his own destiny, he confidently named eight of his children after famous artists and proceeded to teach them to paint. That he succeeded is evident in the present exhibition. Age did little to curb his activities, and his grandchildren enjoyed hearing him whoop while he hurried down hill on one of the first American bicycles. It is interesting to note that he died in character, from the exertion of carrying a trunk a mile and a half in winter on his way to court his fourth wife at the age of 87!

James Peale was taught his craft by his brother, Charles Willson, and to a certain extent was always dependent upon him for commissions, taking over the miniature business when the older brother decided to limit his artistic activities to portraits. James was a master of still life. Four of his daughters and a son painted.

With his uncle James, Raphaelle Peale can take credit for establishing the American school of still-life painting. Unsuccessful as a portraitist, and married to a shrewish wife, he began to drink. His story is one of the sadder episodes in the life of the Peale family. His still lifes are some of the most beautifully executed small paintings in American art.

Thought by his father to be the most talented of his children, Rembrandt Peale studied with Benjamin West as his father had before him. He enjoyed a good, if not spectacular, reputation as a portrait painter and is now remembered best by his posthumous portrait of Washington. He labored hard and long attempting to displace the popularity of the Gilbert Stuart portraits .of Washington. Altogether he painted over eighty copies of the Washington, one of which is illustrated here.

Afflicted with weak eyes in his youth, Rubens Peale did not attempt painting until late in life. He succeeded his father as manager of the Philadelphia museum and later opened an unsuccessful museum in New York City. Eventually the New York museum and its contents were sold to P. T. Barnum and became the nucleus of that museum.

The second in his family to have the name (the first having died the year before this Titian Ramsey was born), Titian Ramsey Peale was first of all a naturalist and was in the party on Long's Expedition to the South Seas. His paintings of that area are perhaps the earliest known.

Orphaned at the age of ten, Charles Peale Polk grew up in the home of his uncle, Charles Willson Peale, and received his early training from the elder Peale. He painted mainly portraits and later in life retired from the profession to become a government clerk in Washington.

Of James Peale's six children, five became artists . His son, James Peale, Jr., was a still life and landscape painter and complicated the Peale genealogy by marrying Sophonisba, the daughter of his cousin Raphaelle Peale. The daughters, Anna Claypoole, Margaretta Angelica, Maria, and Sarah Miriam, specialized in still life and painted an occasional portrait.

Adapted from

Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Famous Families in American Art (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Fine Art, 1960), unpaginated.

Web Resources

  • YouTube
    Watch this video from the New-York Historical Society about Charles Wilson Peale's portrait of his family.

  • YouTube
    Check out this video from Smarthistory about Charles Wilson Peale's 1795 portrait of two of his sons, Raphaelle and Titian Peale.

  • YouTube
    Learn more about the Peale family from this video created by the Biggs Museum of American Art, Dover, Delaware.