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Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum Portraits, 1782 to 1827

Les portraits de Charles Willson Peale dans son musée de Philadelphie
Karie Diethorn

Abstracts

This essay discusses the eighteenth-century Philadelphia Museum of artist Charles Willson Peale, and particularly the numerous portraits, including those of French military commanders, painted for it. Inspired by eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideals celebrating humankind’s capacity to learn and use new information, Peale conceived his Philadelphia Museum. In it Peale intended the works of man and nature to co-exist for the edification of all. The Philadelphia Museum, Peale said, served “to instruct the mind and sow the seeds of Virtue” in the new, American republic. During the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, Peale and his family filled the museum with hundreds of painted portraits, thousands of natural history specimens, minerals, models, Asian and American Indian artefacts, archaeological objects, life-sized wax figures, fossils and curiosities, all exhibited to an international public.

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Introduction

  • 1 Charles Willson Peale, “Address to the Public”, Aurora, 27 January 1800, in Miller 1983–2000, vol.  (...)

1For forty-five years Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827) painted portraits of his distinguished eighteenth-century contemporaries and gathered them for public display in his Philadelphia Museum. The museum was Peale’s “world in miniature”,1 open to those who, like himself, would indulge their own curiosity and quest for knowledge. Until his death in 1827, Peale dedicated his resources to running the museum; portrait painting provided both substance and subsistence in Peale’s effort.

The history of Peale’s Philadelphia Museum

  • 2 Pennsylvania Packet, 14 November 1782, in Miller 1983–2000, vol. 1, p. 373.

2Peale developed his museum as an offshoot of his portrait painting business. Drawn to Philadelphia by the large city’s client potential, Peale arrived in 1775 and quickly secured private portrait commissions. Seeking to market his painterly skill, Peale displayed the portraits of Revolutionary War officers in a sky-lit room added on to his home at Third and Lombard Streets. The display’s popularity suggested a business opportunity in the form of a pay-for-admission exhibit. Encouraged by family and friends, Peale formally announced the opening of the Philadelphia Museum in late 1784 with a display of forty-four portraits that depicted “worthy personages” of America’s Revolutionary era.2

Fig. 1: Charles Willson Peale, Louis Le Bègue de Presle Duportail, 1781–84, oil on canvas, 59.26 × 49.4 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14046.

Fig. 1: Charles Willson Peale, Louis Le Bègue de Presle Duportail, 1781–84, oil on canvas, 59.26 × 49.4 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14046.

Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1998

Fig. 2: Charles Willson Peale, Chevalier de Cambray-Digny, 1783, oil on canvas, 59.56 × 49.53 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14035.

Fig. 2: Charles Willson Peale, Chevalier de Cambray-Digny, 1783, oil on canvas, 59.56 × 49.53 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14035.

Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1995

Fig. 3: Charles Willson Peale, Chevalier de Ternant, 1781–84, oil on canvas, 59.18 × 49.91 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14155.

Fig. 3: Charles Willson Peale, Chevalier de Ternant, 1781–84, oil on canvas, 59.18 × 49.91 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14155.

Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1992

Fig. 4: Charles Willson Peale, Marquis de Lafayette, 1781, oil on canvas, 58.42 × 45.97 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14080.

Fig. 4: Charles Willson Peale, Marquis de Lafayette, 1781, oil on canvas, 58.42 × 45.97 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14080.

Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1995

Fig. 5: Charles Willson Peale, Conrad Alexandre Gérard, 1779, oil on canvas, 241.3 × 150.11 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE11866.

Fig. 5: Charles Willson Peale, Conrad Alexandre Gérard, 1779, oil on canvas, 241.3 × 150.11 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE11866.

Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1994

Fig. 6: Charles Willson Peale, Chevalier de La Luzerne, 1781–1782, oil on canvas, 55.88 × 48.87 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14095.

Fig. 6: Charles Willson Peale, Chevalier de La Luzerne, 1781–1782, oil on canvas, 55.88 × 48.87 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14095.

Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1994

Fig. 7: Charles Willson Peale, Comte de Rochambeau, 1782, oil on canvas, 55.25 × 48.51 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14138.

Fig. 7: Charles Willson Peale, Comte de Rochambeau, 1782, oil on canvas, 55.25 × 48.51 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14138.

Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1996

Fig. 8: Charles Willson Peale, Marquis de Chastellux, 1782, oil on canvas, 57.79 × 50.8 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14038.

Fig. 8: Charles Willson Peale, Marquis de Chastellux, 1782, oil on canvas, 57.79 × 50.8 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14038.

Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1995

3Among these early Museum portraits were eight Frenchmen who Peale admired for their commitment to the American cause. They were engineers and administrators sent secretly by Louis XVI’s government in 1777 and 1778 to bolster Washington’s army: Duportail (fig. 1), the Chevalier de Cambray-Digny (fig. 2) and the Chevalier de Ternant (fig. 3). The Marquis de Lafayette (fig. 4), who volunteered his military services to George Washington in 1777, was also one of Peale’s subjects. And, when the alliance between France and America brought official representatives to America, Peale added portraits of ministers, Gérard (fig. 5) and the Chevalier de La Luzerne (fig. 6) in 1778 and 1779, respectively, as well as military commanders, the Comte de Rochambeau (fig. 7) and the future Marquis de Chastellux (fig. 8) in 1780.

Fig. 9: Charles Willson Peale, Conrad Alexandre Gérard (detail), 1779, oil on canvas. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE11866.

Fig. 9: Charles Willson Peale, Conrad Alexandre Gérard (detail), 1779, oil on canvas. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE11866.

Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1994

4Popular with Peale’s audience, these portraits of French heroes gave Peale’s Museum an international context. Peale was careful in his depiction of his French subjects’ uniforms and insignia so that he and his audience could properly honour the assistance given to America by the French. In particular Peale’s full-length portrait of French minister Conrad Alexandre Gérard directly references the 1778 alliance. The portrait’s background includes an iconographic representation of the two nations in the form of a garland-draped sculpture of two young women: one figure representing France with her arm protectively placed around the other figure representing America (fig. 9).

5By the early 1790s the Philadelphia Museum collection, which now also contained natural history specimens as well as portraits, outgrew Peale’s home. The artist then moved the museum and his family to the headquarters of the American Philosophical Society at Fifth and Chestnut Streets. By 1802 the portrait collection had nearly doubled in size and the museum had moved to the second floor of the old Pennsylvania State House (now called Independence Hall). There Peale’s collection eventually numbered nearly two hundred and fifty paintings, most of which were painted by him with the addition of several score by his son Rembrandt and a few by Charles Willison’s younger brother James (1749–1831).

The purpose of the Philadelphia Museum portraits

  • 3 Charles Willson Peale to the Representatives of the State of Massachusetts in Congress, 14 December (...)

6Peale’s prodigious rate of portrait production reflected his intense commitment to the museum’s edifying mission “to instruct the mind and sow the seeds of Virtue”.3 He intended his museum’s visitors to view the portraits (and read the individual biographies associated with them in the accompanying catalogues) and reflect upon the illustrious deeds of the subjects portrayed. For Peale, the Museum subjects were those whose lives represented the essential human qualities that had fuelled the American Revolution and would sustain the new American republic: public-spiritedness, self-sacrifice and personal morality.

  • 4 Charles Willson Peale, Diary 23, 2 December 1818, in Miller 1983–2000, vol. 3, p. 628.

7Peale shared this belief in the instructive power of portraiture with many of his contemporaries, artists and scientists alike. This concept was deeply ingrained in Western thought, beginning with the societies of Classical Greece and Rome, extending through the Renaissance and into the modern era. The late eighteenth century’s own fascination with physiognomy, the study of how human facial features reflect characteristics of personality, represented the latest interpretation of this idea. Peale probably read the translated works of physiognomy’s leading proponent, Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801), for the artist clearly supported the author’s tenets: “The temper of man in a powerful degree fashions as I may say, the turns of the features.”4 In a Peale Museum portrait, the sitter’s exemplary character was the artist’s chief subject.

  • 5 Charles Willson Peale to Rembrandt Peale, 16 June 1817, in Miller 1992, p. 123.

8Peale’s emphasis on the portrayal of subjects that personified society’s highest moral achievements was well in keeping with the conventions of contemporary Anglo-American art. The exacting manner in which Peale painted his portraits, however, was not. Peale believed that nature portrayed in precise detail captured the essence of character. Ideally, Peale wanted to paint pictures that equalled nature: “Let them have truth,” he told his son, “so that every Eye may at first glance exclaim how like the Man, make them believe it is the Man and see nothing of a picture.”5

The Philadelphia Museum portraits in the context of Anglo-American art

  • 6 Wark 1988, p. 2.

9Peale’s “truthful” depiction of subjects contradicted the tenets of formal (that is, grand manner) portraiture as defined by the practice of painting in British art academies. Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy of Arts and England’s leading late eighteenth-century portraitist, advocated an idealized type of portraiture because he considered it “very difficult to ennoble the character of a countenance but at the expense of the likeness”.6 According to Reynolds, the painter improved an individual’s physical appearance to the degree that it accurately communicated the sitter’s admirable character. Slavish devotion to detail produced not art, in Reynolds’ opinion, but mere copies.

10Undoubtedly, Peale saw many idealized portraits and encountered the traditional elements of artistic training (extensive copying of master works, drawing studies from sculpture casts) during his two intermittent years as a student in Benjamin West’s London studio from 1767 through 1769. As a result of this experience, his only period of formal art study, Peale readily accepted that skilful drawing was the foundation of competent painting. However, he always preferred live subjects to inanimate models (a painterly practice he admired in Dutch painting, particularly that of Rembrandt van Rijn), because he considered works of nature to be themselves works of art. For Peale, a painting’s purpose was to portray nature, not to display the painter’s artifice. The format that Peale chose for his Museum portraits emphasized his intent to impress his audience with the realness of each sitter’s appearance (and thus their character). The bust-length paintings are life-size, usually featuring a dark background devoid of props. In them, the sitter is the one and only interest. In the prevailing republican fashion of the American Revolution and its aftermath, few of Peale’s Museum sitters wear wigs or powdered hair. They also appear in their daily dress: coats and waistcoats with appropriate addition of clerical robes, military uniforms or diplomatic insignia.

11Scholars have observed that Peale’s emphasis on artistic realism did not prevent him from symbolically idealizing his sitters. Peale’s method of displaying the museum’s portraits in rectangular frames with oval spandrels clearly associated the Museum paintings with other commemorative portraits, particularly ancient Roman busts and coins, but also engraved frontispieces to biographies published in eighteenth-century England. Peale selected his Museum sitters carefully, intent upon including only those with unblemished records. As a result, Peale’s Museum subjects represent the artist’s interpretation of the best men of that era.

  • 7 Fortune 1986, pp. 189–97.

12Although he specified that his portraits were to equal nature in their detail, Peale did compose his images with an eye to their visual effectiveness. Art historian Brandon Braeme Fortune has suggested that Peale portrayed his Museum subjects with a variety of similar physical attributes (a firm mouth suggesting stability, a faint smile as an expression of benevolence, a high forehead as the indicator of intelligence) in order to represent their shared character traits, rather than to stylize their physical appearance. This suggests that the Museum portraits are, in their composition and format, physically emblematic of the civic ideal that Peale sought to include as part of his museum’s educational message.7

Charles Willson Peale’s artistic method in portraiture

13Peale defined the didactic purpose of his Museum portraits and established their format at the outset of his project; his artistic method, on the other hand, evolved slowly over the course of his career. An inveterate tinkerer, Peale worked in a variety of painting media and experimented constantly with new techniques. He used optical and mechanical devices, such as the camera obscura and the physiognotrace, to augment his own natural abilities. And he collaborated on Museum projects and public commissions with other artists, chiefly his brother James and his own children. Of these, Peale’s second son Rembrandt was particularly significant in his father’s development as a painter.

14Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860) began his professional artistic career in 1795 when he painted his first portrait of President George Washington. The younger Peale’s initial additions to the Philadelphia Museum collection stemmed from a painting trip to Charleston, South Carolina, in late 1795 and 1796. From then on through the 1820s, Rembrandt Peale added several groups of portraits to the Philadelphia Museum. The largest of Rembrandt Peale’s portrait contributions to his father’s collection were made as a result of two study trips to Paris that the younger Peale took, in 1808 and 1809–10, when he studied with Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825).

  • 8 Charles Willson Peale to Thomas Jefferson, 15 January 1818, in Miller 1983–2000, vol. 3, p. 565.

15Rembrandt Peale’s Paris sojourns resulted in more than an increase to his father’s Museum collection. During his Paris study, Rembrandt Peale refined his own knowledge of painter’s pigments and introduced his father to what the latter termed “a System of colouring … so simple & easy in the immatation [sic] of Nature, of flesh &c. that I can play with the colours and produce any effect I choose”.8 Previously, the elder Peale had tried a variety of paints with limited satisfaction in the result. His earliest Museum portraits have a distinct greenish cast that gives the sitters a pronounced pallor. In the late 1780s, Peale changed his colour palette and the Museum portraits from that time through the mid-1790s exhibit a cool, silvery tone. Under the influence of his son’s colouring system, adopted by Charles Willson Peale around 1806, the senior artist substituted a red ground for the white one he had previously used on his canvases, with the result that his subjects’ skin tones became significantly warmer as well as more varied in colour.

  • 9 Charles Willson Peale to Titian Ramsay Peale, 21 March 1820, in Miller 1983–2000, vol. 3, p. 797.
  • 10 Charles Willson Peale to Thomas Jefferson, 24 December 1806, in Miller 1983–2000, vol. 2:2, p. 993.

16The elder Peale exuded new-found confidence with the adoption of his son’s colour system. He considered the new palette the perfect complement to his strict adherence to realistic detail: “I am convinced that my knowledge of colouring has increased by my practice of late. If my Portraits where [sic] of value on account of the likeness being known at first sight, think how much More valuable my pictures will be when the tints give the effect of real life?”9 The elder Peale continued to employ the system for the rest of his life, repeatedly testing its effectiveness in various situations. He pronounced it particularly successful in his portraits of aged sitters during the 1820s. That he should be able to assimilate the new techniques seemed perfectly predictable to the senior artist. Describing his pleasure in his son Rembrandt’s growth as an artist, the elder Peale added that, “it would be strange if I could not also improve, when it is an object with me to prove that acquirements is attainable at any period of life”.10

Conclusion

  • 11 Charles Willson Peale, Autobiography, 1826. Peale-Sellers Papers, microfiche IIC 18 E6-7, American (...)

17Lifelong learning, Peale’s personal and professional goal, was the inspiration for his Philadelphia Museum collection. Throughout its history, the museum provided Peale with a system by which to examine nature and reveal its infinite variety. Within that system, human beings performed an important role, one with weighty responsibilities and difficult tasks. Those who personified human achievement were the subjects of Peale’s Museum portraits. Their examples were to guide and inspire present and future generations to further greatness. And, for his ability to capture his illustrious sitters’ presence and preserve it, Peale believed that he “would be loved, would be admired, and would be honoured by the children and children’s children, nay by all who might see such of perfection of art for ages to come”.11

  • 12 Pennsylvania Packet, 7 July 1786, in Miller 1983–2000, vol. 1, p. 448.

18Happily, the Peale Museum portrait collection survives in large part. Sold by Peale’s heirs at auction in 1854, the Museum portraits went to a wide range of public and private owners. The largest single buyer was the City of Philadelphia, which purchased a group of Peale’s Museum portraits for display in Independence Hall (the building where America’s Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were debated and signed). Today that group of Peale Museum portraits resides at Independence National Historical Park, a unit of the United States’ National Park Service. These paintings hang together, as they always have, embodying the Peale Museum’s mission “to please and entertain the Public”.12

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Bibliography

Printed sources

Miller Lillian B. (ed.), 1983–2000, The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, vols. 1–5, New Haven (Ct): Yale University Press.

Wark Robert R. (ed.), 1988, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, 3rd ed., New Haven: Yale University Press.

Literature

Brigham David R., 1995, Public Culture in the Early Republic: Peale’s Museum and Its Audience, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Fanelli Doris Devine and Diethorn Karie (eds.), 2001, History of the Portrait Collection, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia (PA), American Philosophical Society.

Fortune Brandon Brame, 1986, “Portraits of Virtue and Genius: Pantheons of Worthies and Public Portraiture in the Early American Republic, 1780–1820”, PhD thesis, University of North Carolina.

Miller Lillian B., 1992, In Pursuit of Fame: Rembrandt Peale, 1778–1860, Washington, DC: National Portrait Gallery.

Miller Lillian B. (ed.), 1996, The Peale Family: Creation of a Legacy, 1770–1870, New York: Abbeville Press.

Sellers Charles Coleman, 1980, Mr. Peale’s Museum: Charles Willson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Ward David C., 2004, Charles Willson Peale: Art and Selfhood in the Early Republic, Oakland: University of California Press.

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Notes

1 Charles Willson Peale, “Address to the Public”, Aurora, 27 January 1800, in Miller 1983–2000, vol. 2:1, p. 274.

2 Pennsylvania Packet, 14 November 1782, in Miller 1983–2000, vol. 1, p. 373.

3 Charles Willson Peale to the Representatives of the State of Massachusetts in Congress, 14 December 1795, quoted in Miller 1983–2000, vol. 2:1, p. 136.

4 Charles Willson Peale, Diary 23, 2 December 1818, in Miller 1983–2000, vol. 3, p. 628.

5 Charles Willson Peale to Rembrandt Peale, 16 June 1817, in Miller 1992, p. 123.

6 Wark 1988, p. 2.

7 Fortune 1986, pp. 189–97.

8 Charles Willson Peale to Thomas Jefferson, 15 January 1818, in Miller 1983–2000, vol. 3, p. 565.

9 Charles Willson Peale to Titian Ramsay Peale, 21 March 1820, in Miller 1983–2000, vol. 3, p. 797.

10 Charles Willson Peale to Thomas Jefferson, 24 December 1806, in Miller 1983–2000, vol. 2:2, p. 993.

11 Charles Willson Peale, Autobiography, 1826. Peale-Sellers Papers, microfiche IIC 18 E6-7, American Philosophical Society.

12 Pennsylvania Packet, 7 July 1786, in Miller 1983–2000, vol. 1, p. 448.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1: Charles Willson Peale, Louis Le Bègue de Presle Duportail, 1781–84, oil on canvas, 59.26 × 49.4 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14046.
Credits Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1998
URL http://crcv.revues.org/docannexe/image/14059/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 3.3M
Title Fig. 2: Charles Willson Peale, Chevalier de Cambray-Digny, 1783, oil on canvas, 59.56 × 49.53 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14035.
Credits Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1995
URL http://crcv.revues.org/docannexe/image/14059/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 4.7M
Title Fig. 3: Charles Willson Peale, Chevalier de Ternant, 1781–84, oil on canvas, 59.18 × 49.91 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14155.
Credits Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1992
URL http://crcv.revues.org/docannexe/image/14059/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 2.1M
Title Fig. 4: Charles Willson Peale, Marquis de Lafayette, 1781, oil on canvas, 58.42 × 45.97 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14080.
Credits Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1995
URL http://crcv.revues.org/docannexe/image/14059/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 1.3M
Title Fig. 5: Charles Willson Peale, Conrad Alexandre Gérard, 1779, oil on canvas, 241.3 × 150.11 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE11866.
Credits Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1994
URL http://crcv.revues.org/docannexe/image/14059/img-5.jpg
File image/jpeg, 2.5M
Title Fig. 6: Charles Willson Peale, Chevalier de La Luzerne, 1781–1782, oil on canvas, 55.88 × 48.87 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14095.
Credits Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1994
URL http://crcv.revues.org/docannexe/image/14059/img-6.jpg
File image/jpeg, 368k
Title Fig. 7: Charles Willson Peale, Comte de Rochambeau, 1782, oil on canvas, 55.25 × 48.51 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14138.
Credits Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1996
URL http://crcv.revues.org/docannexe/image/14059/img-7.jpg
File image/jpeg, 3.4M
Title Fig. 8: Charles Willson Peale, Marquis de Chastellux, 1782, oil on canvas, 57.79 × 50.8 cm. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE14038.
Credits Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1995
URL http://crcv.revues.org/docannexe/image/14059/img-8.jpg
File image/jpeg, 5.2M
Title Fig. 9: Charles Willson Peale, Conrad Alexandre Gérard (detail), 1779, oil on canvas. Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, INDE11866.
Credits Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, 1994
URL http://crcv.revues.org/docannexe/image/14059/img-9.jpg
File image/jpeg, 806k
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References

Electronic reference

Karie Diethorn, « Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum Portraits, 1782 to 1827 », Bulletin du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles [Online],  | 2017, Online since 13 October 2017, connection on 24 November 2017. URL : http://crcv.revues.org/14059 ; DOI : 10.4000/crcv.14059

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About the author

Karie Diethorn

Karie Diethorn (Bachelor of Arts, History and Medieval Studies, Pennsylvania State University; Master of Art, American History with Museum Studies Certificate, University of Delaware) is Chief Curator of Independence National Historical Park, a unit of the US National Park Service. She taught graduate level historic site management as a University of Delaware Associate Professor and graduate level museum collections management as a Philadelphia University of the Arts Visiting Lecturer. She co-authored History of the Portrait Collection, Independence National Historical Park (2001) and contributed an essay to Quaker Aesthetics, Reflections on a Quaker Ethic in American Design and Consumption (2003).

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Le Bulletin du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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