Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827)

Charles Willson Peale was a well-known American painter of portraits. He was born in Queen Anne's County, Maryland in 1741. He arrived in Annapolis at the age of nine as an apprentice to a saddler.

As a youth, Peale taught himself to paint by watching portraitist John Hesselius. He learned about the work of John Singleton Copley on a visit to Boston. When he returned to Maryland, he found work among the Annapolis gentry.

A number of Peale's Annapolis patrons sent him to London to study with renowned painter Benjamin West. Returning to America in 1769, Peale lived in Annapolis until 1775, and during those six years, he traveled throughout throughout the Middle Colonies painting portraits of colonial leaders.

In 1775, Peale moved to Philadelphia where he joined the city militia as a private. A man "determined to do his utmost in the common cause of America," Peale rose to the rank of first lieutenant, and accompanied his unit to the front in December of 1776. He crossed the Delaware River from Trenton into Pennsylvania just as Washington's army arrived on the river bank, and later described their crossing as "the most hellish scene I have ever beheld."

Back in Philadelpia, Peale served on a number of revolutionary committees as well as the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. In 1802, he began a pictorial record of the Revolution for future generations. In order to do this, Peale established a museum at Independence Hall to display the portraits he had painted during the war.

Although Peale continued to paint, his later years were filled by a growing interest in natural history and science. Exhibits of stuffed animals and birds (as well as the reconstructed skeleton of a mammouth that Peale himself unearthed) shared the spaces at Peale's museum with his paintings of American heroes.

Peale was a man who was interested in many things--in taxidermy, "moving pictures," making false teeth and designing mechanical farm equipment, Charles Willson Peale is best remembered as the "Artist of the American Revolution." He was the patriarch of what became an extraordinary family of American painters which included his children (named after famous painters) Raphaelle (1774-1825), Rembrandt (1778-1860), Rubens (1784-1865), Titian Ramsay (1799-1885), and his niece Sarah Miriam Peale (1800-1885), and nephew Charles Peale Polk (1767-1866).

© Copyright July 1, 1998, Office of the Secretary of State.
Last Modified October 04, 2002 .