Charles Willson Peale: Art and Selfhood in the Early Republic

by Stephen May

<Art and Selfhood in the Early Republic</i>, Charles Wilson PealeCharles Willson Peale: Art and Selfhood in the Early Republic
by David C. Ward. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 236 pages. ISBN: 0520239601

Painter, patriot, naturalist, educator, inventor, museum-keeper and self-styled arbiter of cultural tastes, Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827) is surely one of the most remarkable figures in American history. Sturdy, disciplined, ambitious, self-made and fecund, he was a man of the American Enlightenment who believed the world could be mastered by dint of human intelligence, will and effort. Over the years, historians have differed in evaluating Peale. Most have accepted his autobiographical interpretation of his life as one of seamless progress, achievement and virtue—without the struggles and insecurities archival material reveals. A few have focused on allegedly unsavory motivations and acts. Most influential has been Charles Coleman Sellers’s celebratory tome, Charles Willson Peale (1969), which remains the standard comprehensive biography. Valuable recent studies include Edgar P. Richardson, Brooke Hindle and Lillian B. Miller, Charles Willson Peale and His World (1982), and Lillian B. Miller (ed.), The Peale Family: Creation of a Legacy, 1770–1870 (1996). Interestingly, the redoubtable David McCullough said recently that he was thinking of writing his next book about Peale, citing the artist’s versatility, ability to do many things so well and familiarity with anybody in the America of his day.

In this relatively brief but insightful book, which lays claim to be the “first full critical biography of Peale,” David C. Ward seeks to plumb the depths of the artist’s persona in the context of the history and culture of the early national period in which he lived. At the outset of Charles Willson Peale: Art and Selfhood in the Early Republic Ward says he sought to address St. John de Creveceour’s endlessly intriguing question of 1782: “What then is the American, this new man?” He suggests, among other things, that Peale was the embodiment of “that particularly American phenomenon: the self-made man.” A social and economic historian, now deputy editor of the Peale Family Papers (on which he has worked for nearly a quarter century) at the National Portrait Gallery, Ward is well qualified to offer a biographical interpretation of Peale’s life and art. His approach, backed by impressive knowledge of the man and his times, is thoughtful, thorough and imaginative. Ward has taken on a complex task because Peale went to great lengths to construct his public persona, in writing and in art, in largely self-serving and often misleading ways. The paper trail is imposing: Peale’s extant personal and family archive, largely at the National Portrait Gallery, encompasses over 600 documents ranging from ephemera to six decades of correspondence and diaries to his lengthy autobiography. “The connection between the visual and the verbal is arguably stronger in Peale than in any other artist in any era,” Ward observes.

As Ward emphasizes, Peale’s autobiography must be read with a grain of salt. One of the first of that genre in this country and begun when the author was 84, it offers knowledgeable scholars like Ward crucial, albeit self-serving, insights into the man, his art and his times. Working with his usual feverish intensity, Peale covered his entire life in a 1,000-page notebook in about seven months. Decidedly non-introspective, the autobiography “demonstrates Peale’s Enlightenment faith that the encyclopedic cataloging of descriptive phenomena would yield knowledge and mastery.” Unlike autobiographies by prior notables, Peale’s secular text described, as Ward puts it, “not how God made him but how he worked to make himself.”

In Ward’s detailed, penetrating analysis, Peale comes across as something of a control freak, ambitious for himself and his new nation, with an iron will, limitless energy and ferocious discipline. Delving into the most private aspects of his subject, Ward presents him, warts and all. Peale’s life started inauspiciously; as Ward writes, his was a family “founded on a crime.” Charles Peale, the artist’s father, was aLondonpostal official whose sentence of death on conviction of theft and embezzlement was commuted to transportation to the American colonies. Settling in the late 1730s inAnnapolis,Maryland, he became a schoolteacher and married. The first of his seven children, Charles Willson Peale, was born there in 1741. Impoverished by the early death of his father, his teenaged son was apprenticed to a saddle maker, then went deeply into debt when he tried his hand at harness-making, upholstery and watch- and clock-making.

Having seen “miserably done” paintings on his travels, Peale tried to become a painter, “a livelihood that might make independence and autonomy, and thus self-definition possible.”

While Ward properly judges that Peale was not as innately gifted as contemporaries such as John Singleton Copley, nor as innovative as Benjamin West, he made an invaluable contribution by producing likenesses of leaders and ordinary folks of the young republic. He “gave a face toAmericafrom 1765 to 1824,” writes Ward. Largely self-taught, Peale created portraits that were quickly done and straightforward. His early output prompted a group of wealthy Marylanders to sponsor two years of training under the expatriate West inLondon. After floundering with historical and allegorical works, by the early 1770s Peale had begun to hit his stride with conventional likenesses of earlyAmerica’s merchants, planters, political leaders and intelligentsia. In 1772, atMount Vernon, he undertook the first of some seventy portraits of George Washington. Between 1769 and 1791 Peale painted 686 portraits, mostly on painting trips through theMiddle Atlantic states. “Itinerant portraiture,” writes Ward, “played to Peale’s strengths, physical stamina and cheerful compulsiveness,” but “it was a precarious way to make a living.”

Peale’s peripatetic life, lack of technical training and commitment to painting quickly resulted in a formulaic sameness in these likenesses. “Peale’s standard format was designed to fit his sitters in a template of virtues, in which stability of the features, and thus the emotions, was primary,” notes Ward. Peale’s portraits were a public validation. At the same time, Peale chafed at his dependency on the upper classes for patronage and in his autobiography retroactively condemned the excesses of the merchants and landed gentry he had painted. As he established himself as a professional artist, Peale began signing his name “Charles Willson Peale,” using his middle name to distance himself from his felon father and adding an “l” to give it distinction. By this time he had married the first of three wives and had begun producing seventeen children, thirteen of whom lived to adulthood. Reflecting his ego and aspirations for his offspring, he named them after such famous artists and scientists as Rembrandt, Raphaelle, Titian and Benjamin Franklin. Ward devotes disappointingly scant attention to the lives and considerable achievements of Peale’s children, male and female, especially Rembrandt, the finest painter in the entire family.

By the time he completed a carefully planned move toPhiladelphiain 1776, the 35-year-old painter had produced a substantial body of work and established his reputation as an artist. Ward speculates that Peale “may have hoped to become the de facto, if not official ‘court’ painter ofAmerica, a position that would give him both steady income and institutional status.” Such a position was, of course, incompatible with the ideology of the new nation. At the outbreak of the Revolution Peale enlisted in thePhiladelphiamilitia, was made a lieutenant and enthusiastically participated in fighting around the city and in theNew Jerseycampaign. A confident self-portrait painted atValley Forgesuggests he endured the brutal winter of 1778–1779 in good shape. Under the most trying conditions, he produced thirty-two miniature portraits during theValley Forgeencampment. On the home front, he participated actively inPennsylvania’s revolutionary politics, serving in the state assembly, helping to pass a populist constitution and working to confiscate estates from Loyalists. The latter activity, striking at the class on which he depended as an artist, constituted an assertion of his independence from and superiority to that group. Around 1780 Peale abandoned politics, and actively sought a major role in the cultural life of the new nation. He turned out historical paintings that depicted great events of the war and constitutional periods. He also established a gallery featuring bust portraits of notable Americans, putting faces to well-known names, and offering visitors a visual civics lesson on the founding of the republic. “Peale’s homely portraiture placed subject and audience on a more nearly equal basis,” Ward observes, “teaching the democratic lesson that anyone could enter the pantheon,” a message suited to the American myth of unrestrained opportunity.

In an effort to provide an institutional platform to advance his ideas for improving the social and cultural life of the new nation, in 1786 he founded the Philadelphia(or Peale’s) Museum. This “precursor to the modern democratic museum” moved to what is now Independence Hall in 1794. It featured portraits of American notables, natural history cabinets and the remains of a recently unearthed mastodon. With the support of President Thomas Jefferson, Peale’s museum became the semi-official repository of artifacts and specimens collected by government-sponsored explorations, such as the Lewis and Clark expedition. In spite of a modest admission fee, the number of visitors rose in 1816 to nearly 40,000, a considerable number in a city whose population was just over 90,000. Elevating his sights to the nation at large, Peale ambitiously sought to serve “as America’s educator, presenting the exhibition of natural and human history as a means of perfecting individuals and society.” In 1794 he helped found the Columbianum, modeled after the Royal Academy of Art in London, seeking to promote art and artists. His famed double illusionist portrait, The Staircase Group (1795), depicting his sons Raphaelle and Titian, was painted for the new building. Curiously, Peale’s essential role in founding and sustaining the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1805), America’s oldest art museum and school, is mentioned only in passing. Without Peale’s leadership and support, that pioneering institution would not have survived and flourished.

Ward carefully dissects, in interesting ways, such well-known Peale paintings as The Peale Family (1773, 1809), in which the benign patriarch presides over members of his clan, and Exhuming the First American Mastodon (1806–08), in which he depicts himself overseeing the raising of the giant, extinct mammoth. These erudite, far-ranging analyses shed new light on the paintings and the painter. The author devotes special attention to the culminating self-portraits Peale executed between 1821 and 24. Sensing his mortality and seeking to immortalize his role as organizer of American culture, he summed up his life in six memorable likenesses of himself as artist, naturalist, museum-keeper and vigorous octogenarian. Ward opines that in part because he concentrated fully on these compelling canvases: “They mark the pinnacle of his artistic talent.” The final work, the largest he ever painted, is The Artist in His Museum, an iconic masterpiece that celebrates his ambitions and attainments. Here, the aging Peale raises a curtain to offer a glimpse into his museum, replete with tiers of cases containing bird specimens, a hint of the skeletal remains of the massive mastodon and several spectators. At his feet are a wild turkey draped over a taxidermy kit and mastodon bones. Ward painstakingly examines the iconography of this work, explicating each figure, object and elements of composition. It is clear that, by depicting himself turning his back on his palette and brushes, Peale signaled his decision to give up painting. Overall, concludes the author, he presents himself “as a figure of public authority overAmerica’s history….as the sovereign arbiter of culture.”

This is an invaluable addition to American art history scholarship, augmenting numerous studies about this unique, seminal figure in the American saga. It will be essential reading for serious students of our art and Peale’s times for a very long time.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2005, Volume 22, Number 4